Michigan mystery writer Richard Baldwin continually finds joy in telling a story. Assassination at High Speed is the latest – and 12th — Michigan-based Lou Searing detective novel from this writer’s pen.
Here’s the scenario: “The State of Michigan is awarded a huge federal contract to build a speed-rail line from Port Huron to New Buffalo. In celebration, the U.S. President, the Prime Minister of Canada, and the Michigan Governor board the train and set off on a Victory Ride… but who won’t make it to their final destination?”
The book, dedicated to “train lovers of all ages,” features stops at Michigan towns along the rail line. The Michigan settings make Baldwin’s book fun for Michigan readers, as you recognize and can often picture exactly where things are taking place, as if you were there. The newest novel is timely, with high speed rail being a hot topic for national debate.
Nearly a decade ago, I interviewed Baldwin for The Mid-Michigan Reader (May/June 2002 Issue Two — a magazine of Profiles and Observations, published by Steve Horton (currently publisher of Michigan local newspaper, the Fowlerville News & Views). Baldwin was becoming established in the murder mystery genre, having written his first three novels about Detective Lou Searing: A Lesson Plan for Murder, The Principal Cause of Death, and Administration Can Be Murder. His fourth book, Buried Secrets of Bois Blanc: Murder in the Straits of Mackinac, was just off the press (Buttonwood Press).
There’ve been other articles about the books in between. Perhaps you’ve noticed one of these Lou Searing titles on a Michigan bookstore shelf: The Marina Murders, A Final Crossing: Murder on the S.S. Badger, Poaching Man and Beast: Murder in the North Woods, The Lighthouse Murders, Murder in Thin Air, Murder at the Ingham County Fair, Murder in Tip-Up Town.
Since the tenth anniversary of our first interview is coming up next year, I thought it would be fun to reprint the back story that I uncovered then, about this amazing and prolific Michigan writer.
Mystery writer Rich Baldwin finds joy in telling a story (by Susan Parcheta for Horton’s Mid-Michigan Reader, May/June 2002):
Michigan mystery writer Richard Baldwin takes the necessary precautions now when being interviewed.
Once in a restaurant, it became apparent that folks in the next booth, overhearing character descriptions and murder plots, were visibly uncomfortable.
It was all just fiction, he told them. They were relieved. After all, it would sound plausible to a Michigan native. Baldwin’s settings for his Lou Searing and Margaret McMillan mystery series happen o be familiar mid-Michigan towns – like Stockbridge, Mason, Lansing, as well as northern stomping grounds.
Baldwin’s novels traverse all of Michigan. In his first book, Lesson Plan for Murder, the setting is Newberry in the Upper Peninsula.
Detective Lou Searing solves crimes from his home base of Grand Haven, which incidentally, is Rich Baldwin’s hometown.
Follow along carefully, because it gets tricky. Rich’s characters are the names of his parents, Lou (Searing) Baldwin and Margaret (McMillan) Baldwin. But Rich is Lou Searing in the series. Like Rich, Lou has a hearing loss, is bald and pushing 60. Plus, Lou Searing is a writer in the novels.
As Baldwin puts it, “I write the book about Lou writing the book about the case.”
The second novel, The Principal Cause of Death, is set in the fictitious town of Shoreline, while the third in the series, Administration Can Be Murder, finds Lou and Maggie covering a murder in the golf mecca of Gaylord.
The character of Maggie (Margaret McMillan) uses a wheelchair, is independent, with a background in special education. She represents someone with independence skills, who uses technology.
Baldwin’s newest novel, Buried Secrets of Bois Blanc, is set in the environs of the Straits and the island of Bois Blanc.
A theme runs through them: special education. Richard Baldwin is retired from a career in special education, including seven years (1990-1997) as Michigan’s director of special education.
Now that expertise is blossoming into a writing and publishing career. His early books, beginning with Lesson Plan for Murder have a special education theme and issues.
While each book is independent, the Lou Searing mysteries begin when Lou (also director of special education for Michigan) meets Maggie, an insurance claims investigator, at a conference. They figure they could make a good team, solving education-related crimes.
Maggie lives in Battle Creek with husband Tom. Lou is married to Carol in the books (also Rich’s wife’s name). Carol Baldwin (nicknamed Patty) is a specialist for the Ingham Intermediate School District.
Baldwin chuckles to think of what could happen in trying to explain all this to his grandchildren should they be reading grandpa’s books one day.
The Baldwin children, Scott and Amanda, both have young children. Lou and Carol Searing, incidentally, have two children named Scott and Amanda Searing. Rich has a younger sister, Gayle.
In real life, growing up in Grand Haven, his mother, Mary (McMillan) Baldwin, taught elementary school and his father, Lou, worked for the Muskegon company, Manning, Maxwell and Moore.
Rich was on the high school golf team, played clarinet in the band, and enjoyed public speaking and drama. Accolades included “Best Actor” for his role as cousin in Arsenic and Old Lace. He enjoyed his summer job at the Water Ski Thrill Show on the waterfront, taking tickets and flipping lights for the nighttime kite act.
Baldwin attended Alma College from 1959 to 1961, dropping out for awhile to work at Laughead Piano Co., before returning to campus. He played golf and belonged to Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He holds the fraternity’s “Distinguished Alumni Award.”
Contemplating a career as a Presbyterian minister, Baldwin eventually switched to education. He transferred to Western Michigan University, completing his degree in 1964. He first taught children with hearing loss. He brought first-hand experience to that endeavor, having lived with hearing aids in both ears since the age of two, the condition attributed to measles.
In those early years he married Jean Mosier, mother of Scott and Amanda, and taught hearing-impaired children in Kalamazoo and Berrien Springs.
After earning his PhD in 1973 from Kansas University, he taught teacher education at Kent State and at Texas Tech before joining the Michigan Department of Education in 1977, first as a consultant, then supervisor, and eventually becoming director.
Since retirement, he’s been writing books. “I’ve always been a story teller,” confesses Baldwin, describing the process as if you’re back at camp as a kid, sitting by the campfire. Someone starts a story…”It was a dark and stormy night…you take it, Sue.”
But storytelling continued beyond being a campfire pastime for him, he explains, adding, “Rich never gives it up.”
Baldwin continues, describing his style: “I don’t interview and I don’t research first. I go to my imagination, and it’s like going to a movie in slow motion and I’m involved in it and I record it. I sit at the computer and I tell a story. The first draft just rolls out.” Then comes the writing and rewriting.
Says Baldwin: “The first book is just a lot of joy. You’re just telling a story.”
Currently, Baldwin self-publishes through his own Buttonwood Press (www.buttonwoodpress.com) in Haslett, where he and Patty reside. Self-publishing came about, he says, because “at age 56 I wanted to get the stories out.”
His first book was published through Jenkins Group, Traverse City book publishers. He’s been on his own ever since.
His support group of helpers is extensive: proofreader Joyce Wagner, manuscript reviewer Karen O’Connor and cover art by Marilyn “Sam” Nesbitt.
Ray Walsh reviews Baldwin’s works in the Lansing State Journal, and notes Baldwin, Walsh likes some, but not others.
Baldwin credits his editor, Gail Garber – also a mystery fan – noting, “She understands my style.”
His research has taken him all over the state. “Oh, it was so much fun,” he says with gusto. “Because I’ve been to those towns. I’ve eaten in those places.”
Although a “down-stater,” Rich holds a genuine fondness for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, partly because of family roots. During the late 1800s, his great-grandfather, John McMillan, was a blacksmith and proprietor of a general store in Dollarville. The family moved to Munising, where Rich’s grandfather, Hugh, was a banker.
His grandmother, Maybelle Howard McMillan, was a gifted musician and artist. Rich noted that his mother also possessed those creative talents and this inspired him, a few years back, to take music lessons.
“Listening to mom play by ear,” explains Baldwin, “I thought genetically, I should have this skill, too.” And, at the cusp of mid-life, age 50, he took piano lessons.
Inevitably, came the recital. A remarkable thing happened. Mrs. Henes’ young students gave this new senior citizen a lesson in acceptance of others that he retells in a special booklet, The Piano Recital.
Baldwin was Michigan’s Director of Special Education at the time. What the students did for him, by insisting that he walk in with them, so profoundly move d him that he began telling his “piano story” at conferences. At last he wrote it down so that others might enjoy it, too.
Combining his love for the U.P. with his love of history and for his love of history and for his educational field, Baldwin in 1993 wrote a history of special education in the U.P. from 1902-1975. His effort here was to tell “the wonderful story of the people who provided for people with disabilities before the law required it.”
As director of special education, Baldwin says, “it was my job to see that the laws were followed.” For many years, he explains, people with disabilities were excluded and weren’t welcome in the public schools. Programs weren’t available.
Laws were created to hopefully right those wrongs, Baldwin points out. “That is what we did here.” State and federally mandated (in the early 70s), these laws gave people with disabilities the opportunity to be included in the public school system. But the way we went about it, maintains Baldwin, in many ways excluded those with special needs.
“Billy went to the public school as someone different,” he explains. “He had a label.” He was labeled “special,” and was treated differently. Despite laws of inclusion, the system forced him to remain on the periphery.
“We needed the laws at the time,” explains Baldwin, adding, “It’s evolving as it should. I’m proud of the system we have.”
Still, he points out, “We label people. We judge them and we tend to exclude them.” The minister in him exhorts Jesus’ message: “If you have love, you don’t need all the laws.”
Then, he makes a striking remark, thinking back to his experiences in the Department of Education. “I was the head Pharisee.”
Throughout his novels, Baldwin provides the reader with bits of insight into his soul. Follow the trail, and you’ll pick up a crumb here, or a clue there.
The influence of his original call to ministry emerges from under the surface. “If we just loved each other, we wouldn’t need all these rules.”
His underlying belief that we are all connected resulted in his first book of a spiritual nature: Unity and the Children. Unity is a female spirit who appears to some school children, who then lead an attitude change in public education.
In this book, Baldwin helps the reader view public education from a broader perspective. While pointing out how laws have created separation and disunity, he paints a positive future in education – where love, respect and unity prevail.
His mystery novels contain thoughtful nuggets for the reader to chew on, as well. “It is my fervent wish, he writes at the close of Lesson Plan for Murder, “that the future of special education will de-emphasize all that separates us and will emphasize all that brings us together.”
Besides his writing career, Baldwin volunteers at St. Mary Catholic School in Williamston, and he recently was a guest of Webberville Elementary School students who were participating in a mystery writing contest.
He’s a member of Knights of Columbus and Kiwanis, and serves as president of the Lansing area support group for the hard of hearing.
Baldwin is available for mystery shows at conventions and home parties. He also teaches community education classes in self-publishing in Williamston, Haslett, Okemos, and Holt.
As a young man, Richard Baldwin’s career path diverged from the ministry, when he determined to follow the signpost: Special Education.
Now, in retirement, the paths have become one through his writing. And that – a joy to him – is making all the difference.
Links for Richard Baldwin: