On a frigid January morning, private investigator Nils Shapiro is roused from sleep by news that a divorced mother of two has been discovered dead in her Edina bedroom.
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Dust and dirt from innumerable vacuum cleaner bags cover the body and contaminate the crime scene, making DNA testing futile. With Edina Police Detective Ellegaard as his sidekick, Shapiro’s search for the killer hones in on the slain woman’s former lover, a promiscuous entrepreneur with a mean streak. But all is not as it appears; both the Edina Chief of Police and the FBI seem to be thwarting Shapiro, whose help they desperately need. Just when Shapiro is close to solving the case, another crime occurs and he’s forced to begin his investigation anew.
That’s the intoxicating plot of Minnesota author Matt Goldman’s debut novel, Gone to Dust. The story is not only set in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s steeped in it. With appearances from Matt’s Bar, Cedar Cultural Center, Midtown Global Market, and the Chain of Lakes, there are Twin Cities references on every page. Even for readers who don’t delight in the local scenery, Gone to Dust is at once witty, cynical, heartfelt, and engaging. It’s impossible to put down.
Goldman is a longtime television writer and an Emmy Award winner for his work on Seinfeld. He spoke to City Pages from his home in Minneapolis where he stays when he’s not living in Los Angeles.
City Pages: The book is hyper-local. Were you or your publisher concerned that people from outside Minnesota wouldn’t be able to connect to it?
Matt Goldman: No, not at all. Matter of fact, just the opposite. The more specific something is, the more universal the appeal. I’ve worked in TV for a long time. If you look at a TV show like Seinfeld, which is incredibly specific to Manhattan, it has the most universal appeal of any show I’ve worked on.
I think the reason for that is it just feels true. When something feels true, people can relate to it. People love the Simpsons or Game of Thrones [even though] nobody knows what it’s like to live in a cartoon town or to live in the Seven Kingdoms. But the human element feels real to them. That’s what they latch onto. And also, I think readers like to go to a place they don’t know. The books I like have a strong sense of place, even if I have never been to that place.
CP: Some of the locations in this book are iconic and some are lesser-known. How did you choose them?
MG: I just chose the places that I was familiar with. Almost all the businesses in the book are real – bars and restaurants and things like that. The houses where people live, I made up. I didn’t want to use anybody’s real house. They are just a mixture of things I’ve seen around.
CP: Something that is very Minnesotan about the book is you practically include driving directions as Shapiro commutes around the Twin Cities.
MG: [Laughs.] I know, I know. I may have done a little too much of that. But there’s a lot of people who love that. There are a lot of readers who like a book they can use as a roadmap. Some great writers have done that. You can walk around Dublin with James Joyce’s books and find your way around that way. Same with Dostoevsky and Saint Petersburg. Not that I’m comparing myself to those people. Those are just two examples. I like a real strong sense of place. It makes everything feel real.
CP: How did you decide on the details of the murder?
MG: You mean with the vacuum cleaner bags? That is completely made up and it comes from my hatred of CSI. I think CSI is such a stupid show – that crime scene investigators are running around making arrests and things. I wanted to create a crime scene where there was no usable forensic evidence and make it about my investigator’s knowledge of human nature and the human condition and the dynamics in his life, relationship-wise, giving him insight to the crime.
CP: The book is set in the dead of winter. Why did you choose that season?
MG: When I started writing, it was the dead of winter and I was here. Also because I like Scandinavian noir and I think Minnesota has a chance to represent an American version of that. When the book went out for foreign publication, both Norway and Sweden initially rejected it because they said it was “too Scandinavian.” It wasn’t “American” enough. I’ve never been to Norway or Sweden. I just wrote about what I know to be true here. But apparently it’s quite similar.
CP: I wanted to ask about the depiction of the Somali community. On the one hand, it’s great to see that community represented in a novel. On the other hand, they were among the bad guys, depicted as terrorists, in the book. Why?
MG: I don’t talk about that in interviews because it gives away a big part of the story, but when I wrote that book in January of 2015, it was in the national news every day – the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN – about the [terrorist] recruiting being done out of here. There were something like 24 missing or known dead young men who’d gone to fight in Somalia or the Middle East.
It was a legitimate thing when I wrote that book. But it’s a fair question. I have optioned the rights for television and written the script and I show a much more broad representation of the community where you see different sides of it. Part of my problem was I wrote this book in the first person, so I could only show so much.
CP: Have you already thought about who you would cast for these roles in the TV version?
MG: The answer is yes, but it’s unlikely those people would do it, for a variety of reasons. And there are so many good actors around the world that the chances are, I don’t even know who the person is at this point. People who I imagine for Nils are Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Topher Grace. Armie Hammer I imagine for Ellegaard.
CP: Do you know if the series would be filmed in Minnesota?
MG: It’s a long way from that point. Right now, I’ve optioned it to some producers. It’s going out to directors. Unfortunately, I think that it’s a long shot that it would be filmed in Minnesota. I would love it if it were. The production in Canada is so much cheaper.
CP: You mentioned this is a series, so does that mean we’re going to be seeing more from private investigator Shapiro?
MG: Oh, yeah. The second book, Broken Ice, comes out in June of 2018. It’s already written. The third book I am deep into right now. That will come out in 2019.
IF YOU GO:
Matt Goldman, Gone to Dust
Once Upon a Crime
7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 14