Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs were at risk in California during an outbreak of the Mediterranean fruit fly in 1981.
Perhaps the world’s most destructive pest, its larvae are indiscriminate and voracious, and their presence triggered a $100 million eradication program that involved the aerial application of insecticide over 1,400 square miles.
“It was a huge, huge deal,” University of Wyoming professor Jeff Lockwood said. “Billions of dollars were at stake if this thing wasn’t gotten under control.”
To complicate matters, the fly appeared to be spreading faster than it could have under its own power, raising suspicions of ecoterrorism.
Into this world, Lockwood drops Riley, the police officer-turned-exterminator at the center of his noir mystery series. “Murder on the Fly,” set in San Francisco in 1981, is the sequel to his debut novel, “Poisoned Justice,” which was published last year through Pen-L Publishing.
After his career as a police detective is brought to a halt by an act of violence, Riley takes over his father’s extermination company. He is able to combine his detective skills with his knowledge of insects to investigate murders.
As a first-generation Irish-American in 1980s San Francisco, Riley also has to navigate a tumultuous period in American culture.
Lockwood described the noir genre as one in which the hero is more of an anti-hero who occupies a place of moral ambiguity. The noir protagonist often operates according to his own rules, even when it comes to justice.
“Murder on the Fly” opens with the apparent suicide of a gay cop, which draws Riley into an investigation that escalates to include the growing fruit fly infestation.
Riley encounters an old flame who returns to town, while grappling with ideas of borders, belonging and invasion.
“The driving theme that works its way throughout this whole book is the theme of what does it mean to belong? What does it mean to cross a border? What does it mean to be native or indigenous to a place?” Lockwood said.
Just as he did in his first novel, Lockwood drew on previous nonfiction work to inspire his fiction.
He joined the UW faculty 30 years ago as an entomologist in the College of Agriculture, focused on grasshopper and locust control. That work led him to begin considering the nature of suffering, violence and justice, and Lockwood started writing essays and teaching in the Department of Philosophy. He currently has a joint appointment in the UW Creative Writing Program.
His nonfiction books include “Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War” and “The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe and Love Insects.”
He drew from “Six-Legged Soldiers” for portions of the plots in his first two novels. He’s currently working on a third installment in the Riley series that draws from “The Infested Mind.”
“I’m having fun with my nonfiction as the kernel to build a story,” he said.
Lockwood said he has an idea in mind for a fourth book in the Riley series as well as an idea for a character in a new fiction series.
He’s also at work on a short opera in collaboration with composer Ann Guzzo and artist Ashley Carlisle about the disappearance of the Rocky Mountain locust in the early 1900s. Due to premier in August in Jackson, the opera tells the story of an entomologist haunted by the ghost of the locust. The entomologist listens to the tale of a rancher in order to discover how the species went extinct just 25 years after darkening skies with its numbers.