Digging up the past

When I got David Schulman’s new mystery novel, The Past Is Never Dead, I flipped to the back to look at the author photo.

There was Schulman, smiling in a baseball cap. But where’s he standing? I wondered. Behind the author, I could make out a row of ivory balusters shaped like giant pepper-shakers.

Looks like the Grove Arcade, or maybe the Battery Park Hotel.

If you’re at all familiar with Asheville, you won’t be able to resist playing a similar game as you actually read The Past Is Never Dead (John F. Blair, 2004) — trying to identify the local landmarks, public figures and bits of history that Schulman has playfully hidden throughout its pages, in various states of disguise.

In other words, not only do the characters in this fun, well-written mystery have some detective work to do — so does the reader.

Every mystery series needs a compelling sleuth, and Schulman has found his in Gritz Goldberg, a “burned-out” middle-aged psychiatrist at Highland Hospital whose “ancient office” is sometimes haunted by the sweet smell of former Highland patient Zelda Fitzgerald’s favorite perfume. (Fitzgerald was killed in a fire at the hospital in 1948.)

Gritz is divorced and living in Montford with his two kids and his ex-mother-in-law, with whom he happily gets along better than he does with her daughter. He is a Southern Jew, and one of the pleasures of The Past Is Never Dead lies in Gritz’s recollections of growing up Jewish in a small Southern town.

Here he is on his great forbidden love, pork rinds, whose consumption had to be hidden in his kosher home: “[My accomplice and I] always kept a bottle of mouthwash hidden in the spare tire of the Golden Chariot to cover my waywardness. In the days when we regularly downed those greasy suckers, I debated renouncing Judaism, thinking of all the allowance money I could save by not having to buy so much Listerine.”

Gritz’s childhood supplier of pork rinds was an employee in his family’s clothing store, a black man named T Royal, whose job duties involved looking after Gritz and his brother. A beloved fixture of Gritz’s youth, T has been out of touch for many years, until one day Gritz is summoned to the Battery Park Hotel for a psychiatric emergency — the police have gotten reports of a suicidal jumper on the roof of the building — and finds T there.

Like Gritz, T is a haunted man, literally. Now a resident of the hotel, he is troubled by the ghost of an old friend, Mordecai Moore, wrongly executed for a 1939 murder that took place in the hotel’s heyday. In an effort to clear Mordecai’s name and lay his soul to rest, T enlists Gritz’s help in tracking down the real murderer.

Together, the two — the disaffected Jew and the elderly African-American man — take off to unravel the tangled tale of one the city’s most notorious murders, in a story that proves William Faulkner’s adage that in the South, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I e-mailed Schulman to ask him if Gritz and T’s case had any point in fact. He wrote back: “The novel is loosely based on a true incident in Asheville history, a murder that did happen at the Battery Park Hotel in 1936.” At the time, Schulman reports, the murder was big news, covered in the New York Times and other national publications, as well as Asheville’s own paper.

“Since it was the 1930s, I wanted to fictionally include other people who were walking the same streets of Asheville during that decade, which led me to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Senator Robert Reynolds, and Commander William Dudley Pelley, leader of the Silver Shirt militia.” (As a reader, I was particularly pleased to spot a cameo by a former consort of F. Scott’s, a “courtesan” known locally for walking the area near the Grove Arcade in the company of her two small dogs.)

Yet as fun as it is to puzzle over these pieces of Asheville’s past, Schulman’s portraits of the people who inhabit the city today are equally enjoyable. Take Gritz’s friend, Perrier Skyhawk, a retiree from Boca.

“When she arrived in Asheville, Perrier had the name Esther Goodkind,” Schulman writes. Having enjoyed a New Age transformation, the newly named Perrier wears “bright Southwestern smock dresses” and is a certified massage therapist.

Me, I know Perrier Skyhawk, and I bet you do, too. Her presence is one of the many wonderful things that help to make The Past Is Never Dead so full of life.

[Carrie A.A. Frye is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

David Schulman will be reading and signing copies of The Past Is Never Dead at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 15, at Barnes & Noble (89 S. Tunnel Road). Call 296-9330 for more information.

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