It's always good to start off strong, but it isn't always easy to tell if you've done that once you're on your way. Some time ago I submitted The Comfort of Distance for a professional editorial review in the hopes that I would get some feedback that suggests I'm heading in the right direction. After several weeks of checking my email in hopeful anticipation, I finally heard back:
A gifted forensic anthropologist joins his estranged brother to solve a series of baffling murders when bones are discovered in the Black Hills in THE COMFORT OF DISTANCE.
Piece by piece, human remains are surfacing deep in the wilderness of the Black Hills. As stories of a vicious mountain lion killing residents circulates throughout the county, Sergeant Hank LeGris is desperate to quell the panic before it takes a turn for the worst. With the trail of the killer growing colder by the day, Hank needs to find the real culprit. He reaches out to his estranged brother, Dr. Sebastien Grey, a talented forensic anthropologist, to join him on the case. While awkward and eccentric Sebastian takes the lead with a keen eye for detail and a brilliant analytical mind, the brothers work through years of distance and dysfunction to reconnect. Restoring peace to the quiet, rural county might just prove that there’s a future for Sebastien far outside of his comfort zone.
Ryburn Dobbs’ extensive background in the world of detective work and forensic anthropology lends an enjoyable realism to THE COMFORT OF DISTANCE, the first installment of the Sebastien Grey series. There’s no faux television forensics in these pages—Dr. Grey puts his deductive skills to the test while helping his brother, Hank, his brother’s partner detective, Tiffany, and the audience around forensic jargon and analytical methods used in the field. Parsing out the differences between animal kills and murder, while complex, is presented in a way that’s easy to follow and interesting to learn. And it adds an intense credibility to Sebastian’s character; while he’s constantly anxious and a little odd, he also has hawkish sense of observation and a natural talent for deductive reasoning. A direct contrast to his brother Hank, who’s the strong, masculine lawman type, but tempered by his good sense of humor and easy charm. Tiffany holds her own among a male dominated field, and her evolving relationship with Sebastian as he learns to open up is endearing.
THE COMFORT OF DISTANCE moves at a good pace and doesn’t waste any time getting the action going. Told from multiple points of view, it’s not simply a forensic heavy police procedural. The narrative takes its time to develop characters on all sides of the growing murder mystery, with a clever ear for quick, realistic dialogue and the complicated interpersonal dynamics that exist in a town where nearly everyone knows everyone else. Sebastien gets a lot of page time devoted to his journey—both personal and professional—which ends in a satisfying way for not only him, but others who might see themselves in his quirks and mental health struggles.
A solid start to a brand new mystery series, THE COMFORT OF DISTANCE makes the most of its debut with a lively rural setting, great pacing, realistic dialogue and intense forensic details.
~Jessica Thomas for IndieReader
I've learned over the years that getting an outside opinion (that is, an opinion that did not originate in my own head) can be an important step in calibrating oneself against reality. Based on what Ms. Thomas and IndieReader took away from the novel, reality is pretty much what I hoped.
“How was your day, honey?”
“Oh, pretty good. I spent the afternoon elbows deep in rotting corpse. Let me shower before you hug me.”
I was always reluctant to talk about my forensic cases because, let’s face it, the stuff is pretty macabre. It’s not exactly appropriate dinner conversation. And yet, it always surprised me how often people would ask about the details. Of course, I downplayed it substantially on the premise that people would think I’m sort of a ghoul – which I’m not. I promise.
It is only now, years later, that I actually admit that my daily grind, so-to-speak, was a lot more unique than the average worker bee. I could spend the morning crawling under a house with a cadaver dog looking for a presumed murder victim, the afternoon cleaning off a skeleton to look for signs of sharp force trauma, and the evening lecturing my college students about the effects of juvenile nutrition on long bone fusion (more than once my students asked me to “bring in a case,” and I happily obliged until the trunk of my car started to smell of decomposition. Hard lessons learned).
But a forensic scientist was not what I dreamed of being as a kid. What I really wanted to do was write. But I never knew exactly what I should write. Fiction? Nonfiction? I always leaned toward fiction but felt that I didn’t have anything interesting to commit to paper. Not to mention the existential questions like, am I a good enough writer to write? Would the universe give me permission? These questions plagued me, literally, for decades. Silly, I know.
But after those decades the two parts of me began to overlap, resulting in a significant “aha!” moment. I could use my forensic work as a framework for the type of fiction that I want to write. I could also use the specific elements of actual cases in my books. If people seemed to be interested in that stuff – and they clearly were – then maybe I do have something worthy of a novel. And that’s what I’ve done with The Comfort of Distance. Each of the cases in this book is based on an actual case that I have worked, from the standpoint of forensic analysis and/or recovery (with the exception of Mickey “Tiny” McCallister. Poor guy). As an example, one of the victims in the book suffered a “Lefort Fracture.” Though rare in homicides, they do happen. The photo is from an actual case, and those are my hands holding the skull.
Fortunately for me – but unfortunately for dozens of my hapless “customers” – I have plenty of material and book two in the Sebastien Grey series is already in the works. I thank the universe for giving me permission.
New beginnings often start with new names. At a certain point our identities get so convoluted with our professions, histories, friends and family, that we just need to tear up the old road and start laying new track (am I mixing metaphors? Probably). For me, it seemed likewise appropriate to take on a new name as I began this writing adventure - something to mark the path that will surely wind in a totally diferent direction. It also seemed fitting that in the process of looking forward I should reach back and pay homage to a singular person who, through no fault of his own, found himself on a path altogether too short and onerous.
Ryburn is actually my middle name, a name I was given to honor my great uncle Ryburn. Great Uncle Ryburn (leftmost in the picture to the right) was born in 1915 and, while a child, contracted tuberculosis of the spine. Tuberculous spondylitis., or Pott Disease, is an infection of the vertebrae and intervertebral discs which causes the vertebrae to collapse in a process called caseous necrosis. The product of this ominous sounding condition is a hunched back, compressed spine, chronic pain, a susceptibility to infections and sometimes paraplegia. I can only imagine how difficult Great Uncle Ryburn's life had been.
Notwithstanding his challenges, Great Uncle Ryburn was incredibly intelligent and accomplished. He did not allow his physical condition to stall his intellectual life. He was the star of his Latin and debate classes in high school and an officer in the school's honor society. He clearly did not let his obvious physical differences inhibit him from being his best and pursuing his interests. After high school he entered law school, eventually graduating at the top of his class (pictured below, in the middle). He would later become an attorney for the National Labor Relation's Board.
After World Word II, Ryburn and his older brother (my grandfather), who was also a labor lawyer, got together to form their own law firm: Hackler and Hackler (I still have the announcement card for their firm). Unfortunately, before the firm opened its doors, Ryburn contracted myocarditis, which spread from his heart to his kidneys. He died in a St. Louis hospital in 1946.
It could be argued that Great Uncle Ryburn's life was, to quote Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short." It could also be argued that he is a great example of overcoming adversity and living your best life. I think of him both ways; both are true. And I'm grateful that I've been given his name as my middle name - which I now push to the front to honor him, and all of those bear infirmities a tad larger than the average, as I stumble down the writing road.