MSUM historian pens murder-mysteries

Story by The Forum about Gerald Anderson, MSUM European history teacher.

By: John Lamb, INFORUM

David Samson / The Forum. Gerald Anderson is a mild-mannered history teacher by day, but away from campus, he writes murder-mysteries. His featured sleuth, Ottertail Sheriff Palmer Knutson, is modeled after the author, and Palmer’s wife, Ellie, after Anderson’s own late wife, Barbara Thill Anderson. She was an accomplished artist, and her painting entitled “River of the Sun,” background, is one of Gerald's favorites.

FARGO – Gerald Anderson follows an old adage for authors: Write what you know.

Well, sort of.

He admits he doesn’t know much about murder – a key element to his murder-mysteries.

What adds intrigue to his mysteries, however, is that Anderson, a teacher of European history at Minnesota State University Moorhead, incorporates history lessons into each of his page-turners.

“I like to have a theme to educate the reader, whether they want it or not,” he says with a smile.

Anderson’s latest, “The Unicorn Murder or Victoria’s Revenge,” examines the history of the British crown as the royal bloodline is called into question.

His other books examine to increasing impact of casinos on Indian reservations (“Murder in Bemidji or Paul’s Bloody Trousers”), environmentalism (“Pecked to Death or Murder under the Prairie Chicken”), the fallout from 1960s radicalism (“Murder under the Loon”) and campus politics (“Death Before Dinner”).

Perfectly polite, Anderson explains he doesn’t glorify violence and only uses it to further a story along. With the exception of one book, there is only one murder in each of his thrillers.

“It has more to do with character development and a puzzle than it does violence,” he says.

That said, he rubs his hands deviously, explaining how a college president gets a meat cleaver to the back of his head while preparing chicken Kiev in “Death before Dinner.”

“I’m still partial to the 1930s golden age of Agatha Christie and the classic whodunnits,” he says.

While he’s a proud Scandinavian, he’s not enamored with the current trend of Scandinavian murder-mysteries.

“They’re so dour,” he says, referring to characters reveling in misery. “Quit bitching. It’s the highest standard of living in the world. Still, they’re a day in the park compared to the Icelandic ones.”

For Anderson, formulating the stories works as mental exercises, compared to writing histories.

“In many ways, it’s a much more interesting mind game than a narrative,” he says. “Your victim has to be someone who will be missed. You have to give the reader alternate suspects. You’re left providing each suspect a motive and you have to throw out red herrings.”

While teaching can be (over)stimulating, writing can be engaging but also more relaxing.

“Teaching is very … ” he says, rapidly snapping his fingers. “You’re on all of the time. Your mind is going a million miles an hour. Sitting and writing a story is a substitute for keeping your mind active.”

Still, he says there is a thrill to the act of writing.

“Once you get really going, the words just pour out of you,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you’ve written well, you feel good about it, like you’ve earned a nice gin-and-tonic.”

As much as he likes the process, he doesn’t claim to be creating high art.

“I realize it’s mostly rubbish,” he says. “People assume it’s hard and it isn’t. It would be hard to write wonderful literature.”

His first mystery, “Death before Dinner,” came out in 2007, the same year he and his wife, Concordia art teacher and painter, Barb Thill Anderson, left higher education.

“We were a little too young to retire, so we just said, ‘We quit,’ ” explains Anderson.

The couple traveled to Italy and picked olives.

Travel is something that shows up in the mysteries as the protagonist, Otter Tail County Sheriff Palmer Knutson and his wife Ellie, spend “The Unicorn Murder” in England.

“He’s my alter-ego,” Anderson says of the crime-solving cop, adding that they are both modest.

“As a writer I don’t take myself seriously,” he says. “In all of the books he’s lost and at that point he goes home to a farmhouse that’s no longer there and it gives him a piece of mind.”

Just as Knutson is similar to Anderson, the sheriff’s wife is reminiscent of the author’s late wife, both more outspoken than their husbands.

“Ellie is a little like Barb, but I didn’t want people to think that, so I made her short, pudgy and blond,” he says.

“The Unicorn Murder” was the last book Anderson wrote before Barb died in the summer of 2011 of pancreatic cancer.

“I just haven’t had the heart or the ambition to do that,” he says, explaining why he hasn’t published since.

He has written a handful of short stories featuring Palmer Knutson, but nothing he’s ready to publish.

Similarly, he doesn’t plan to write about his wife of 33 years.

“It would almost be like bragging,” he says. “We were such soul mates. We could complete each other’s sentences. We were awed by the same things and angered by the same things. I’d like to think everyone has someone like that in their life, but I doubt it.”

Instead, he’ll settle for the likes of Palmer and Ellie.

“Characters that have a deep love between them and that is something I know about,” he says. “More so than murder.”