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Baseball provides setting for new series of mysteries

Oct. 06, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Huntington-born mystery writer John Billheimer, who now makes his home in California, is packing his bags for a trip home to his native West Virginia. When he arrives, he's going to find himself mighty busy.

On Thursday, Oct. 11, Billheimer will be a guest at the annual conference of the West Virginia Library Association at the Stonewall Jackson Resort, where the group will present him its 2012 Literary Merit Award. Previous winners of the annual award include, among others, Davis Grubb, Breece D'J Pancake and Jayne Anne Phillips.

On Friday, Oct. 12, he will be at the Public Library in Montgomery, introducing his newest book, "Field of Schemes," a mystery that tackles the timely topic of baseball and steroids. On Saturday, Oct. 13, he will be among the dozens of authors taking part in this year's West Virginia Book Festival at the Charleston Civic Center. And at 6 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 15, he's to talk and sign books at the Cabell County Public Library.

A 1956 graduate of Huntington's St. Joseph Central Catholic High School, Billheimer went on to study engineering, earning a master's degree at MIT and a doctorate at Stanford University. Today, he lives in Portola Valley, Calif., where for 30 years he was vice president of a small consulting firm specializing in transportation planning. But in recent years he's also made a name for himself as a writer of whodunits.

Billheimer says he had never written anything but articles for technical journals before the writing bug bit him and he started taking creative writing courses at night.

A business trip back to West Virginia to work on a railroad project set him to thinking about trying his hand at a novel set in his native state. The result was "The Contrary Blues," published in 1998, the first of what would become a series of mysteries featuring Owen Allison, a California engineering consultant who finds himself drawn back to his native West Virginia. (The resemblance between Allison and Billheimer seems far from coincidental.)

In "The Contrary Blues," the fictional Allison is dispatched to the equally fictional Contrary, W.Va., to probe the unusually hefty federal funding going to a small rural bus system. Allison soon discovers that Contrary's mayor is over-billing the feds and using the extra money to keep the town's sagging economy afloat. It turns out that's not the only dirty business going on in the tiny town, and before long Allison finds himself framed for murder.

Allison, of course, soon set things aright and went on to play the leading role in a series of quirky and inventive mystery novels that, in the words of a glowing review in the Boston Globe, combined "just the right mix of humor and menace."

The second book in the series, "Highway Robbery," explored West Virginia's all-too-common road building scandals. The third, "Dismal Mountain," tackled the controversial subject of strip mining. The fourth, "Drybone Hollow," dealt with the bogus insurance claims that followed a devastating flood. And the fifth, "Stonewall Jackson's Elbow," tracked the aftermath of a $750 million bank fraud.

Billheimer is a huge baseball fan and in 2007 published a non-fiction book on baseball scapegoats, "Baseball and the Blame Game." Given his passion for the game, it seems inevitable that sooner or later he would write a baseball mystery and that's what he's come up with in "Field of Schemes."

The novel introduces a new character, Lloyd Keaton, a newspaper sportswriter who lost his money, his wife and his big-city sportswriting job to a gambling habit. It's set in the fictitious small town of Menckenburg, Ohio, with side trips to the gambling establishments of East Wheeling, W.Va.

When a hotshot outfielder on Menckenburg's minor league team asks his trainer, Dale Loren, for steroids, Loren supplies the player a harmless mixture of cold cream and lemon juice, telling him it's a brand new steroid that can't be detected by baseball's urine-testing regimen. Believing he has an illegal edge, the player goes on a hitting spree and is called up to the majors where, cut off from his supply of "steroids," he falls into a deep slump. Then he tests positive for drugs and fingers Loren as his supplier. Loren is fired and, not long after, the outfielder is found dead.

The police say the outfielder was the victim of a fatal drug overdose. But sportswriter Keaton is unconvinced and sets out to clear trainer Loren's name. In the process, he's threatened by mobsters, shot at and learns that his own teenage son is hooked on steroids. But, just like Owen Allison in Billheimer's earlier series of mysteries, Keaton soon manages to make things right.

Billheimer has already completed writing a second baseball mystery featuring Keaton, "A Player To Be Maimed Later," and anticipates it will be published next year.

"Field of Schemes" is published by Five Star Publishing and retails for $25.95. It can be purchased at area bookstores, from www.amazon.com or directly from the publisher at 800-223-1244, ext. 4.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.

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