By David A. F. Sweet
Steve Timbers enjoyed a successful career in the financial industry, working as president and CEO of Zurich Kemper Investments and president of global investments at Northern Trust. While some at those high levels later craft books offering business advice or – if they’re particularly well-known – a memoir, Timbers chose a different path with the written word after he retired: a fictional murder mystery.
“Time was the most difficult issue,” Timbers said about writing his first book.
Published by Dorrance Publishing Co. in Pittsburgh last year, A Death at the Potawatomi Club is the story of amateur sleuth Charlie Bailey, who near the beginning of the book encounters a family friend and client who looks to have drowned in his country club pool. Bailey – considered a suspect at first by a police sergeant since he left the crime scene and whose firm is connected to the murder on a local news program – sets out to find whodunnit, even after the death is ruled an accident. Unlike, say, Sherlock Holmes, Bailey has no history of being a detective (he is a money manager), so he must apply his intelligence and energy to an unknown field.
Why did Timbers choose to write fiction, especially when many former executives gravitate to non-fiction?
“First of all, I like the freedom in fiction – the author invents the narrative,” said Timbers, who lives in Jupiter Island with his wife, Elaine. “You can choose the characters, places, situation, and dialogue that you prefer. No one can demand that you should create things differently.”
An English major at Yale University, Timbers cites two professors who bolstered his confidence as a writer. Eugene Waith, a prominent scholar in Elizabethan literature, inspired his student by encouraging him to publish his paper on William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Second, Timbers enjoyed a seminar with Robert Penn Warren, best known for his novel All the King’s Men and the first U.S. Poet Laureate. The class spent the semester analyzing Lord Jim page by page.
“I learned what choices Joseph Conrad made regarding structure, character development, place, timing, language, moral-dilemma resolution and more with a Pulitzer Prize winner,” Timbers recalled. “That was a priceless learning experience.”
A Death at the Potawatomi Club is the first in a series of murder mysteries by Steve Timbers.
Timbers – who loved reading mysteries as a boy, especially ones involving amateur detectives, and counts books by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle in his library – comes from a heritage of storytellers. His father, mother and grandparents all told him stories of the past – some true and some fictional. He considers his son Alex, a Tony-Award winning theatrical director of Broadway-bound musicals, a masterful storyteller.
“One of the benefits of his work for me is his outstanding use of Easter eggs,” noted Timbers, referring to items authors drop in their books for fans (in this case, the Society of the Four Arts in Palm beach and 1500 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, among others).
Following the write-what-you-know philosophy, Timbers points out that the locations and background Charlie Bailey inhabits spring from his own life. Timbers has a house in Lake Forest, which is the home of the club Bailey belongs to. Both the real Timbers and fictional Bailey are golfers and, just like Bailey, Timbers served in the U.S. Army during a war.
The septuagenarian faced many challenges in writing his first book.
“Time was the most difficult issue,” he said. “For several years I would start and stop writing due to family priorities, travel demands, board meetings and a full bucket list. In addition, writing this book required significant amounts of research and consultations with the remarkable editors I hired. The work required several drafts. One piece of luck was that the pandemic came along and helped generate the unexpected opportunities to write.”
Sometime this spring, Timbers will publish a second book in the series. Titled The Degas Trove, it is a mystery based on an art theft from the Yale University Art Gallery and a murder in the Yale Library stacks. Claire Bailey donated the Impressionist paintings – and her grandniece was the one murdered. Her son Charlie returns to try to figure it all out.
As he looks back, Timbers is happy he chose to create Charlie Bailey and craft his first novel.
A Death at the Potawatomi Club is dedicated to Steve’s wife Elaine.
“Writing A Death at the Potawatomi Club has given me great satisfaction and pride,” he noted. “First, I met the challenge of creating a readable book from scratch. Second, from the positive feedback I received from readers, I know I succeeded in my primary goal: to entertain. Finally, I had fun. The decisions I made while composing the book gave me joy, amusement, wonder and discipline.”
Unsung Gems columnist David A. F. Sweet is the author of Three Seconds in Munich and Lamar Hunt. He can be reached at email@example.com.