An art theft, organized crime, the Stone Arch Bridge and more…all in the same novel! Today, we have a guest post from Todd Johnson, who chose to set his latest legal thriller, Fatal Trust, in Minneapolis (home to both Todd and Bethany House Publishers). Read on for his explanation of the fascinating real-life history and setting of the novel.
The building with the clock tower stands alone in a suburb of Minneapolis, sandwiched between a busy mall and a nearby highway. It looks like it might once have been a bank. Perhaps it was. But in the late 1970s, it was an art shop, Elayne Galleries. On a winter day in 1978, that gallery was the site of a robbery which would prove to be the greatest unsolved art theft in Minnesota history, and the inspiration for my third novel, Fatal Trust.
I visited the gallery on a fall day in 1977 shortly before that theft, dragged to a Norman Rockwell exhibition by a girlfriend with genuine taste. The paintings were like the Rockwells you see in magazines, only wonderfully more vivid, and I recall the gallery owner explaining to us that the paintings and lithographs on display, including the iconic “The Spirit of ‘76”, would soon be worth much more than their current value because of the painter’s advanced age. The point seemed a bit morbid, though almost certainly true, and it has stuck with me through the years.
Leaving the gallery that afternoon, I had no idea that, within a few months, seven of those Rockwells would be stolen. The thieves might even have been among us that day, casing the exhibit, its security system and the single Pinkerton guard. The FBI suspected the crime was carried out by organized crime figures. They never determined if they were right.
Fatal Trust is not really about Minneapolis’s gangster past, though the likes of Kid Cann, David Berman, John Dillinger and others who once walked Hennepin Avenue echo in the background. Rather, it is a modern novel about two young lawyers, Ian Wells and Brook Daniels, drawn into a maelstrom birthed from that history. The book examines how even people we believe we know well–even those closest to us–can have secrets we do not suspect. And how even people of good intentions can’t escape the simple spiritual truth that actions will have consequences–for us and those we care about, extending much farther than we may suspect.
Ian Wells is one of the protagonists of the story, a young criminal defense attorney struggling to build a Minneapolis law practice he inherited from his father while caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. Burdened nearly to breaking, one day Ian gets a break. A new client calls offering a simple case: determine whether three men qualify for over nine million dollars of trust funds. To qualify, none can have been involved in criminal activity for the past twenty years. Ian’s fee for a week’s work: the unbelievable sum of two hundred thousand dollars.
Ian accepts the job. But he is quickly dragged deep into a mystery linking the trust with a decades-old criminal enterprise and Minneapolis’s greatest unsolved art theft. As stolen money from the art theft surfaces, Ian finds himself the target of a criminal investigation conducted by his closest friend, Brook Daniels, a prosecutor and companion since law school. He realizes too late that this simple investigation has spun out of control and threatens his career, his future, his life, and the live of those he loves.
As the mystery unfolds, the book follows Ian and Brook through the “grand rounds” of some of my favorite places in the Twin Cities: from the Lynnhurst neighborhood where Ian grew up to the State Fair Grounds near his Fremont Apartment.
From the Stone Arch Bridge arcing gracefully over the Mississippi to the outdoor patio thrust from the Guthrie Theater toward the same. From Kieran’s Pub to Victor’s 1959 Café; Summit Avenue in St. Paul to the old clubs fronting Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. And through it all, the layers of the mystery keep peeling back to reveal more inside.
Non-fiction writers search for the interesting truth; novelists for the interesting “what ifs”. Fatal Trust was just that: a product of my imagining the consequences of a distant crime through the decades and generations that follow. I hope you enjoy this story and the “what ifs” it conjures from the history and setting of my own hometown.
You can explore Todd’s fun map of the real locations in the book here! Is there a news item you know of that would make a great novel? Tell us about it below and I’ll pick two commenters next Thursday to win a copy of Fatal Trust.