A glass of Michigan wine, served with murder. The eighth in Aaron Stander‘s Ray Elkins’ Mystery Series, Murder in the Merlot (Writers & Editors, 2016), takes readers to yet another story set in Northern Michigan — this time to the vineyards.
“I started writing this series about 20 years ago but I didn’t publish the first one until maybe 14 years ago,” Stander says. “It was about my experiences up here in Northern Michigan.”
Stander grew up in metro Detroit and later taught in college there, but he moved north to Traverse City in 2000. The area was familiar because of many visits during his youth.
“I needed a protagonist for my first book,” he says. “So this series has been about this local sheriff and it mostly it takes place in Leelanau County. Part of it has to do with place — the lakes up here are just so amazing. So place is always a character. But the series is also about the differences in people and the economics that play such an important part in the sociology of this region.”
Along with teaching workshops on crime writing, Stander also hosts Michigan Writers on the Air on Interlochen Public Radio. Any other free time finds him paddling his kayak, where he often muses on plots and other writing ideas. He also builds kayaks, the small, narrow boats pioneered by the Inuit people of the Arctic.
A little-known fact about Stander’s family history is that his ancestors came from the Baltic country of Latvia, where they lived until some were murdered by the Nazis during World War Two because they were Jewish. But others had left years before because of Russian persecution and survived to settle in Michigan.
“We don’t know too much about the part of the family that stayed in Riga, Latvia,” Stander says. “Early in the war, when the Nazis took over, they were all marched outside the city and murdered. My grandmother and great-aunts would tell me about the pogroms and how afraid they were of the Russians. That was about the time that they left Latvia, around the beginning of World War One.”
Stander’s newest novel deals with the wine-making industry in Michigan and internationally. He did research in many Michigan wineries. Stander says there are about 40 now in northern Michigan alone.
“There’s not only a suspicion here of new people moving in, but also major corporations and the dominance of big financial forces. That’s something I wanted to work into this new novel,” he says.
Drinking wine, however, was not a part of Stander’s research for the book. “I love wine, but it no longer agrees with me,” Stander says. “Yeah, it's a tragic story.”
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