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Professor writes of human monsters, conflicted characters

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The mask sits on a middle shelf next to a roll of red, "admit one" tickets and a row of books.

Phillip DePoy picks up the mask, a piece of a monster costume left over from a play, holds it up with one hand and looks it in the face.

"Isn't it great?" he asks. "It's the minotaur. The half-man, half-bull from the Greek myth about the labyrinth."

The mask is from a theater production long-since performed and it sits, now, on a book shelf in a Clayton State University office. The face of the conflicted creature -- the divided self -- is a sort of relic for DePoy, the theater director-playwright, folklore collector and popular novelist, who writes about characters who are conflicted and whose identities are divided.

"Our culture," DePoy says, "is filled with conflicted characters. I mean, Jesus was a conflicted character."

DePoy is currently writing the last book in a second series of mystery novels. He has a book due out this coming summer, another due out in 2009, and another being written.

DePoy's first series, five novels following an Atlanta private eye named Flap Tucker, won the Clayton State professor an Edgar Award, was optioned for a possible TV show on HBO, and was adapted for the stage. The main character of the series, combines Eastern religion with old fashioned, American noir.

DePoy's books, published by Dell and now by St. Martin's Press, are filled with seemingly monstrous characters and by internally divided leading men. His last book, "A Minister's Ghost," features an albino dwarf hitman, a junkyard proprietor, who's an experimental musician, and a drug dealer, who aspires to film making.

In the current series, the main character, Fever Devilin, is a folklore expert and a professor, who is perpetually caught up investigating intrigues. Devilin is a mess of contradictions -- A man of the world who lives in a backward mountain town, a man who equally believes in astrophysics and folk myths, a man who loves his community, but imagines himself mentally superior.

"He's a fairly troubled guy," said DePoy, who dresses like the fictional Devilin, in ensembles of black. "It's all a part of his upbringing and the gestalt of that little town. Though he probably wouldn't admit it. There are all these unadmitted conflicts, for Fever Devilin."

The books themselves are conflicted, too, DePoy admits. The world of mystery novels is divided by "cozy mysteries" and "hard-boiled mysteries," but the Devilin books are both. DePoy started the series, he said, by trying to write a book that crossed pre-established publishing lines.

"I wanted to write more literary fiction," he said. "That was my goal as a writer: write literary fiction disguised as a mystery. There are a few of us who walk the line in between."

DePoy himself walks those lines of conflict. A transplanted Southerner, his family moved to Atlanta so his father could play in the symphony. He spent the end of his college career with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, collecting old stories and jokes from rural Georgia.

He's a fixture of metro theater productions and the region's community colleges, with an affection for the uneducated, all things Appalachian, and mountain ghost stories.

A lot of his own conflicts have found there way into the books, and a lot of his own experiences, too. He dedicated "A Minister's Ghost" to the title character, who he claims to have met at a bus stop at 5:30 a.m., in 1969.

"The universe flings these sorts of characters at you," he said. "If you encounter someone like that, it's an obligation to put it in a book. The writer Jorge Borges said that the mystery is the truest form of literature, because life is a mystery. When you see all these crazy things, you just write that."

BOX:

Excerpt from "A Minister's Ghost," the latest Fever Devlin Mystery, by Phillip DePoy:

I watched him from my pickup, trying to decide if I should stop and give him a ride. He was shivering, bone white in the damp, dressed in black tatters. The primary shame of our century is that a propensity for human kindness is often kept in check by suspicion, disgust, and fear. I had an impulse to help, but I hesitated.

Just as I determined to offer him a lift, the lights of a semi rose over the ridge in the gathering fog. My eye was distracted for an instant; when I looked back, he was gone, one more old leaf blown away.

The semi clattered by. I turned left to cross the tracks, scanning the trees for some sign of the vagrant traveler. He'd vanished.

Another failing of human beings in this century is an almost complete inability to recognize an omen, even one so obvious. A November ghost is always an omen.