There’s a New King in Town

An author sets his novel at UTSA, where an English professor is found shot dead and his replacement survives a bomb blast and ultimately solves the murder mystery

There’s a New King in Town

An author sets his novel at UTSA, where an English professor is found shot dead and his replacement survives a bomb blast and ultimately solves the murder mystery

[ This article was originally published in Sombrilla Magazine, Spring 2000 ]

Who’s responsible for all the excitement at UTSA? You won’t hear about it on the nightly news, but you might find the story on the best-seller list.

San Antonio mystery writer Rick Riordan has set his latest Tres Navarre mystery, The Last King of Texas (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000), at UTSA. The novel joins its two predecessors, Big Red Tequila and The Widower’s Two Step, in chronicling local private investigator Tres Navarre’s fearless pursuit of bad guys, good women, and decent Mexican food.

Riordan’s fans, including many of his colleagues in the mystery-writing world, have recognized his talent by awarding him the Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony Awards—top honors highly coveted by mystery writers.

Those familiar with Riordan’s work have come to know an extraordinary set of fictional characters from many walks of life. “I work hard to get the racial and cultural chemistry of the city right. You never want a character to be a cardboard cutout,” he says.

“Looking back on my own upbringing as an Anglo in San Antonio, I’m stunned at how little I understood or was made to understand the Latino heritage of the city. I can’t believe I ever got by without learning more Spanish. I can’t believe how limited my knowledge was about the Westside and the Southside. I corrected some of that but I’m still learning.

“I never presume to understand the point of view of a different ethnic group, nor do I assume that any ethnic group has a single point of view. I read a lot, talk to people a lot, observe a lot. In the end, ethnicity is just one more ingredient in character creation. The character has to ring true by being complex—and by being a bit surprising.”

But the characters are just part of what makes Riordan’s novels a popular success. His tightly constructed plots are witty page-turners, the violence softened by the author’s fine-tuned comic sensibility. No wonder his readership continues to grow.

Churning out award-winning mysteries wasn’t something Riordan expected to be doing. “If you had told me three years ago that I’d be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says. “I read mysteries for fun. I had no intentions of writing them until I got homesick. And that’s the most important discovery I’ve made about writing. It’s not enough simply to write because you want to get published. You have to wait until you have a subject matter that’s burning to get out, that grabs you by the throat and screams, ‘Write me!’ For me, it was the realization that I wanted to chronicle San Antonio. I am extremely pleased that the series has struck a chord for so many people.”

Riordan, who spent eight years teaching English in a San Francisco middle school, tried coming home first in fiction. “I realized that San Antonio really is a terrific place and a fabulous setting. I like the landscape here, the mix of cultures, the history. I even like the brutal weather because that’s part of the city’s character. Most of all, I like the people. There’s a real small-town feel, even with a million-plus people.”

Riordan’s hometown haunted him in California, and in 1998 he and wife Becky and their two young sons moved back.

Those who know Riordan see a few similarities between him and the ultra-cool Navarre. Just how far do those similarities go? “Tres is a combination of paths I didn’t take—or didn’t fully take. He’s got the English Ph.D. I only thought about that, although I am a teacher and an English lit guy. And like Tres, I read a lot of medieval literature. He’s fluent in Spanish, while I speak only broken Spanish and wish I knew more. He’s much better at tai chi, although I did take five years of it before starting to write the series.

“He’s a ‘what if’ version of me. On the other hand, he’s not really wish fulfillment. I wouldn’t want to be him. He’s fun to write about, but I’m a happier person. I settled down, and he hasn’t.” Both Rick and Becky are UTSA alumni. Though he received a bachelor’s degree from UT Austin in English and history, Riordan attended UTSA to earn his Texas teaching credentials and to take some graduate courses. Becky studied fine art at UTSA, finishing her degree in Austin.”

He continues, “The UTSA courses were some of the best I ever took,” adding that the only formal training he had in creative writing came in a course at the university he took with Bill Oliver. Riordan’s first time in print was in the campus literary magazine, Cactus Alley.