Local author Wendy Madar holds a mirror up to Corvallis in her latest mystery novel
In Wendy Madar’s world, fact and fiction exist side by side.
Madar, a former Gazette-Times reporter, editorial writer and columnist, has reinvented herself as a mystery author — and has reinvented Corvallis in the process.
Writing under the pen name Ashna Graves, Madar recently published “No Angel,” her second whodunit featuring inquisitive newspaper columnist Jeneva Leopold.
The first novel took place in the Eastern Oregon desert, but the latest, titled “No Angel,” is set in the fictional Western Oregon college town of Willamette.
Local readers will immediately recognize Neva’s stomping grounds as Corvallis, despite the many transpositions and transformations designed to keep reality at arm’s length.
Some local fixtures go under their own names, such as Peak Sports or the Old World Deli, while others appear in disguise. Central Park, for instance, is rechristened Azalea; Robnett’s Hardware emerges as Happ’s; and the Corvallis Gazette-Times comes out as the Willamette Current.
The plot is based loosely on the murder of Enrique “Junior” Sanchez, a local homeless man who was beaten to death in October 1999, when Madar was writing a regular column for the Gazette-Times.
In the novel, Junior is transformed into Angel de Silva, and Neva is drawn into investigating his death when she gets a phone call at the newspaper from someone who claims to have knowledge of the crime.
The scene is one of many instances in “No Angel” of art imitating life, Madar said in a recent interview at the downtown Beanery, a location that appears several times in the book.
“That happened,” she confessed. “I got a phone call from a sculptor who said, ‘I know who killed Junior.’”
Other elements of the story are also drawn from actual Corvallis events, such as the heated civic debates over how to redevelop the riverfront or whether to build a bigger jail.
One of the great pleasures of “No Angel,” for a Corvallis reader, is the sense of viewing your hometown through the transformative lens of art. This fictional terrain is undeniably familiar, yet subtly different at the same time.
Another is trying to guess which fictional characters are based on real people (I won’t spoil the game for you by naming any of them here).
“When I do that, I hope it’s with respect, that no one would feel bad about seeing themselves in the book,” Madar said.
“But most fiction does that, you know. Writers are not that good at making things up out of whole cloth.”
And that’s one of the reasons she chose to model Jeneva Leopold on herself. As a columnist for the Gazette-Times, digging into mysteries was part of her job description.
“In a way, a newspaper columnist is the biggest snoop in town — so I’m still snooping, I guess,” Madar laughed.
In her column-writing days, she was also frequently granted extraordinary access into people’s lives and had a ready-made forum for weighing in on a wide range of civic issues. It’s one of the things Madar misses about her newspaper gig — and something she hopes to re-create, to some extent, in her novels.
“I loved the conversation with the community that came out of that,” she said. “In some ways, this is the same thing, but in a semi-invented way.”