Historical PI Mystery has Origins in a Bookshop

Well, as you know inspiration can come from anywhere. So, here’s Matt Cost, author of Velma Gone Awry: A Brooklyn 8 Ballo Mystery, on the story behind his latest novel.


My love for history and mystery is combining with the April 12th release of my historical PI mystery, Velma Gone Awry: A Brooklyn 8 Ballo Mystery.

I’ve always had a love of history and mysteries. I started with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the Great Brain, and ended up with a history degree from Trinity College. A professor at Trinity was so passionate about Latin American Studies that I ended up writing the draft of I am Cuba; Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, after graduating in 1989. It was published in 2020, thirty-one years later, after I finally got a chance to visit and research Cuba.

In the meantime, I had to make some money, and I put my fervor for the mystery genre into play—opening, operating, and owning The Coffee Dog Mystery Bookshop. I filled the shelves with those young adult favorite that had been mine and supplemented them with the likes of Elmore Leonard, Patricia Cornwell, Walter Mosely, Robert Parker, Elizabeth George, Carl Hiaasen, J.A. Jance, and so many more. 

Conversing with readers on a day in day out basis was a joy and an experience I won’t forget. As a writer, it is still something that excites me, this interaction regarding books that I’ve written, with people that read, and hopefully, like what I’ve written. I was forced to close the bookshop down some twenty years ago as life ran into a few snags and things became tough for bookstores, but those are the events that led me to my writing career, so I have no regrets. 

But the Coffee Dog Bookstore would live on in the 2020 publication of my debut Mainely Mystery, Mainely Power, in which the protagonist, Goff Langdon, is a PI and the owner of The Coffee Dog Mystery Bookshop. It was a great pleasure to bring that old business back to life and give it another opportunity on the pages, and on the streets, of Brunswick, Maine. The fifth book in that series, Mainely Wicked, will publish in August of 2023. 

After closing down The Coffee Dog Mystery Bookshop, I continued to weave the themes of my life together and became a Junior High School history teacher. I did this for ten years, one of my topics being Joshua Chamberlain and the Civil War, so naturally, I wrote a historical novel about him and it, At Every Hazard. About six years ago, I was release from my sentence as a teacher of early teens and turned to writing full time. 

Which brings us to the final merger of the two loves of my life. Histories and Mysteries. I decided to bring the two genres together into a historical PI mystery set in 1923 Brooklyn. Why then and there you might ask? Simply because it may quite possibly be the coolest time and place in the history of the world. 

With the marvels of modern research, through a site that costs $75 a year, www.newspapers.com,  I was able to read the Brooklyn Eagle every single day of my research. Front page to back page on my computer from January 1st, 1923, until November 1st of that year. I’d read my local paper, and then move to my desk, and read the Brooklyn Eagle. Funny enough, it may’ve been the advertisements that gave me the best glimpse of 1923 Brooklyn. Fashion from dresses to hats to shoes, radios, moving pictures that were being played, and everything that was for sale at that time. 

And what an epic Era it was. Prohibition. Suffrage. Speakeasies. Post Great War. Rum Runners. Gangsters. Jazz. Baseball. Brooklyn was a melting pot of diversity and integration, as well as a hotbed for racism and hatred, the two forces colliding with fantastic force as a new world order was being carved out. 

My PI, 8 Ballo, named thus, as he was the eighth child of Hungarian immigrants, is hired to find the adult missing daughter of a German businessman. In the course of his search, 8 will befriend Dorothy Parker, the caustic wit and central figure of the Algonquin Round Table. Parker also continues into the second book in the series, City Gone Askew, due out in April of 2024. 

8 Ballo will cross paths with jazz legends Coleman ‘Bean’ Hawkins, Fletcher ‘Smack’ Henderson, and Ethel Waters to name a few. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are instrumental in his search for Velma, and there is a cameo appearance by the bombastic Babe Ruth

The 1920’s would not be complete without gangsters, and these fill the pages as well. 8’s path crosses with the Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel at the Candy Store in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He has a run-in with Arnold Rothstein who is famous for having fixed the 1919 World Series and is delivered a message from Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano. It is a delicate balance that 8 must walk in his search for Velma. 

Researching all of these legendary figures was a fascinating process and certainly one of the reasons that I write, so as to learn more about the history and the world in which I live. To take the momentous events of the Roaring ‘20s, weave in a few of the legendary figures of the time, and wrap it all into a complex plot, is, as far as I’m concerned, the reason for writing and reading. From history major to mystery bookstore owner to teacher to writer, my path has led me Velma Gone Awry, a historical PI mystery set in 1923 Brooklyn.

Write on.

Many thanks, Matt. The 1920s is a fascinating time period, especially with intriguing and well known ‘real life’ characters to enhance the plot. Best wishes. Perhaps you’ll return to A Writer of History with some thoughts on writing a series. PS – love the name 8 Ballo!!

Velma Gone Awry: A Brooklyn 8 Ballo Mystery by Matt Cost

Award-winning author Matt Cost brings us back to Brooklyn in the Roaring ’20s and introduces us to Hungarian private eye, 8 Ballo, who is hired to find the daughter of a wealthy businessman. The search will lead him to cross paths with Dorothy Parker, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Bugsy Siegel, Babe Ruth, and many more as he tries to uncover why Velma went awry.

8 Ballo’s mother was certain he was going to be born a girl, but when he comes out a boy, she writes down simply the number 8, as he has seven older siblings. She meant to change it to a real name at some point but never got around to it.

Now, in his mid-thirties, 8 is a college educated man, a veteran of the Great War, jilted in love, and has his own private investigator business. He enjoys his friends, a good book, jazz music, and a very simple life. When he is hired to find the young flapper daughter of a German businessman, life suddenly becomes much more complicated.

Velma Gone Awry is also available through Bookshop.org.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Share this post

About the Author

Picture of Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

All Categories

Subscribe to the Blog

Receive the latest posts on writing and reading historical fiction via email.

Join 2,205 other subscribers

Leave a Reply