If you ever thought the life of a private investigator was either a) only available to the likes of Magnum P.I. and Remington Steele, or b) super glamorous, Asheville resident and author Brian Lee Knopp lays both of those myths to rest in his new book, Mayhem in Mayberry: Adventures of a P.I. in Southern Appalachia (Cosmic Pigbite Press, 2009).
Knopp graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an English degree which, upon moving to Asheville, he put to work in his turns as sheep shearer, essayist and outdoorsman. His inherent curiosity and sense of adventure led him to a career in legal support investigations, which provided fodder for his memoir.
Mayhem is peppered with detail and wit: “A 1980 Fleetwood singlewide mobile home looking like something that would have made both Edgar Allan Poe and his Raven shit themselves,” Knopp writes of one stakeout. But, as evidenced by that description, Knopp’s investigations were hardly dealings with jet setters and criminal masterminds. Instead, Mayhem chronicles cases of cheating spouses, workers abusing disability insurance and witnesses reluctant to testify about the crimes they saw.
Another part of the job, which Knopp conducted in the most rural of counties and the most hidden of hollers, was serving legal papers. “Process servers are like pizza delivery boys from Hell,” he writes. “We bring you something you didn’t order, don’t want, can’t enjoy and more than likely can’t afford—but in the end you will pay dearly for, anyway.”
What Mayhem is not is a play-by-play of P.I. cases. In fact, the stories Knopp tells are often just glimpses and memorable moments: Escaping a dog attack, meeting a witch, having his cover blown by a cheating spouse during surveillance. This is no true crime novel; rather its a look back at the highs and lows of undercover work.
Despite his training in martial arts, a keen knowledge of the mountains and an ability to talk himself out of tight situations, Knopp never comes off as Asheville’s answer to Miami Vice. Instead, he’s open about his shortcomings in that line of work as well as the downsides of the job. He also draws the connection between P.I. work and the sad task of looking after his own mother as she suffered with dementia.
Ultimately, Mayhem is deeply human and engaging. The sweetest parts of the book are probably tough-guy Knopp’s lovely mentions of his wife Linda: “the best investigation partner in the world.”
The author is also excellent at capturing character: “The women could have been twins,” he writes of two subjects. “Their mouths were set in the same thin gashes across their identical puffy faces, their hair piled atop their heads like arguments.” Who knew that P.I.s were armed not only with cool gadgets but razor-sharp humor?
Brian Lee Knopp reads from Mayhem in Mayberry at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Oct. 10. 7p.m., free. Info: 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter