For years, Madison author John Galligan wrote successful mystery novels connected to the world of fly fishing. Each book was named after a certain type of fly-tying (“The Blood Knot,” “The Nail Knot”), and his sleuth, Ned “Dog” Ogilvie traveled the country fishing as well as solving crimes.
The books were well-received, but the focus on fishing limited Galligan’s audience somewhat.
“That wasn’t bad, because if there’s one type of fishing that has a grand literary tradition, it’s fly fishing,” Galligan said over coffee at Manna Café recently. “If my audience was bass fishermen, I think it would have died.”
Still, Galligan, who also teaches writing at Madison College, had bigger fish to fry. He wanted to write something that could break through to a national readership.
“I decided to step back and start something that was similar, but different enough that it would appeal to a wider market,” he said. “But, at the same time, I wanted it to be regional. One of the things that the allowed the fly fishing books to be successful is authenticity. I have a deep knowledge and passion for the regions involved.”
The result is his new mystery novel “Bad Axe County,” which hits stores Tuesday, July 9. The book is being released by a national publisher, Atria Books (a division of Simon & Schuster), and is the first book of a two-book contract Galligan signed with the publisher.
Galligan said he’s just about finished the second book. He will read from and sign copies of “Bad Axe County” on Thursday, July 11, at 7 p.m. at Mystery to Me, 1863 Monroe St.
Taking place in the Driftless Area of the state in the fictional Bad Axe County (although Vernon County was called “Bad Ax County” until 1862), the novel’s hero is Sheriff Heidi Kick. Still remembered as being the state’s “Dairy Queen” as a teenager, Kick has to deal with drug dealers and sex traffickers in her picturesque county, as well as investigate the murder of her parents 20 years earlier.
Galligan, who was born in Spokane, Washington, and grew up in Portland, Oregon, before moving to Wisconsin as a teenager, said he’s always been drawn to the Driftless Area.
“It’s an area that’s fascinating to me,” he said. “You’ve got the natural beauty, but there’s a culture shift going on there. There’s the farm failure, and at the same time there’s progressive people moving in. There’s a lot going on.”
“Bad Axe County” was an ambitious book for Galligan to tackle. While his “Knot” mysteries were told from one first-person perspective, that of his detective hero, “County” is told in third person from three alternating perspectives: Kick, a teenage girl kidnapped by sex traffickers, and a former high school baseball star who has returned to town years later to settle scores. It also has elements of both a mystery novel and a thriller.
The biggest challenge for Galligan was tone — how to write a novel that’s both honest about such a difficult subject as sex trafficking while not turning off readers looking for entertainment.
“It was a challenge to manage that topic without it being overwhelmingly dark and disgusting,” he said. “I think that’s one of the areas that allows the book to be successful. It delves into this awful topic, and I’m sure the reader, as I did when I was writing, feels revulsion and horror. But hopefully there’s a balance of hope and humor.”
Galligan knows the landscape and the characters of Wisconsin well, and the book includes a few very Wisconsin references, like Kick’s “Dairy Queen” past, or the character who dips deep-fried cheese curds in nacho cheese sauce.
“People have their notions of Wisconsin, so you have to feed them some of that,” he said. “But then you take them somewhere else, once they’ve taken the bait.”
He laughed. “So the cheese is the bait.”