by Barbra Alan
When PSU Professor of Tourism Management Mark Okrant decided to write a textbook to help his students better understand the tourism industry, he wanted to be sure they’d actually read it. So he got a little creative: he made it a murder mystery.
The result was Judson’s Island, a tourism planning textbook cleverly disguised as a whodunit. Set on a fictional island off the coast of Maine, Judson’s Island is the story of Judson Bailey, a community planner who is unjustly imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. After serving his sentence, Bailey returns to the island to clear his name and find the murderer. Throughout the story, Okrant traces the evolution and effects of tourism development on a hypothetical New England island.
“The idea was to immerse students in a field experience and make it interesting,” said Okrant. Since its release in 1995, Judson’s Island has been used as a teaching tool not only by Okrant, but also by tourism professors across the country, at institutions such as Arizona State University, Michigan State University, George Washington University, and the University of Alaska.
In the years since, Okrant has published two more mysteries and has plans for at least two more—not bad for someone who never even picked up a mystery novel until he was in his forties.
A Grand Hotel Setting
Shortly after he finished Judson’s Island, Okrant realized he had an idea for a second mystery book. Rather than setting the story in a fictional location, Okrant chose The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, NH. “It’s a top tourism destination in New Hampshire, and one that I love to visit,” Okrant said.
Though Okrant had initially thought of bringing the Judson Bailey character back as the protagonist of this story, the octogenarian sleuth was “a bit older than I wanted this character to be,” Okrant noted. Enter Kary Turnell, a 50-something criminology professor-turned-novelist who finds himself drawn into murder investigations. Readers who know Okrant will pick up on similarities between the author and his main character right away—but Okrant maintains Turnell is not modeled on himself. “He’s a professor and works on a campus much like ours, he’s a social scientist, and he’s in his late fifties, which is what I was when I started writing this,” Okrant said. “But that’s where the similarities end.”
The book, entitled A Last Resort, begins with the surly Turnell taking refuge at The Balsams in an attempt to overcome a severe bout of writer’s block. When a guest disappears, the resort’s general manager enlists the help of his old friend Turnell to discretely unravel the mystery.
Okrant takes readers through every nook and cranny of The Balsams as Turnell hunts for the missing woman. Such detail required extensive research on Okrant’s part, including interviews with a number of resort staff from the general manager to the groundskeepers, and thorough scrutiny of every room, passageway, corridor, and service elevator. He also researched the surrounding communities, since that is where most of the characters live. “I’m a geographer, born and bred, so setting is a crucial element in my novels,” he said.
Complementing Fiction With Fact
For his next book—and the second installment in the Turnell series—I Knew You When, Okrant chose another grand resort hotel as the setting: the Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, NH. “In this case, I chose the site before I had a storyline,” Okrant notes.
In the story, Turnell comes to the Mount Washington to support his distraught sister-in-law Maya, whose best friend was found dead on the grounds of the resort. Although the police believe the death was accidental, Maya and Turnell are skeptical. The pair, who can’t stand one another, reluctantly join forces to find out what really happened.
As with A Last Resort, Okrant put a great deal of time in researching setting before he started writing the story. “I needed to know everything about the Mount Washington Resort: when it was built, who built it, the style of architecture, what the grounds looked like—right down to what the carpets looked like,” he said.
While his first two mysteries took upwards of eight years to research and write, Okrant managed to complete I Knew You When in just two years. “Part of the reason the earlier books took so long was because I had children at home and I wanted to spend more time with them,” said Okrant. His nest may be empty, but his plate is overflowing. Not only does Okrant teach a full course load, but he also conducts tourism research for the state of New Hampshire “and that’s almost like a second full-time job.”
As if this weren’t enough, Okrant also developed the curriculum for a new Bachelor of Arts in Tourism Management and Policy at PSU, which will be offered starting in the fall 2008 semester. According to Okrant, the new major “will examine the relationship between tourism, the natural and human environment, and the economy of locales, regions, and states.”
Rather than feeling pulled in different directions by his teaching, research, and writing endeavors, Okrant sees many overlaps among them. Writing novels is a natural extension of his teaching style. “I am above all else a storyteller,” he said. “Using a story to convey concepts like tourism multipliers helps make the lesson far more interesting and memorable than a lecture or a flow chart ever could.”
Research for his novels, notes Okrant, keeps him engaged in his field. While hospitality is a facet of the tourism industry, it’s one that he hadn’t researched in great detail until he started writing. “My research has focused on visitors and what they do, and less about where they stay,” he said. “I’ve gotten quite an education at both The Balsams and the Mount Washington Resort, and I’ve brought that back into the classroom. And I’m sure that will continue.”
Indeed it will. Okrant already has plans for the location of another Turnell grand resort mystery: the Mountain View Grand Resort in Whitefield, NH. Interestingly, it was management at the resort who approached Okrant about setting his next story there. The author needed no convincing. “It will be a beautiful setting for Kary to do some sleuthing.”
While his second career as a mystery novelist was born from a desire to better serve his students, Okrant also sees his books as a way to pay tribute to the New Hampshire tourism industry. It’s an industry he has been a part of for nearly three decades, and according to Okrant, one that “has certainly done an awful lot for me.”
For more about Mark Okrant and his mysteries, visit the author’s Web site.
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