Philosopher/entomologist/writer Jeff Lockwood is back with a new novel that questions what it means to be normal.
“Lethal Fetish,” released in November through Pen-L Publishing, is the third in a noir mystery series that follows police officer-turned-exterminator Riley through 1980s San Francisco. “Murder on the Fly” and “Poisoned Justice” were the first two titles.
At the outset of the series, Riley takes over his father’s extermination company after an act of violence ends his career as a police detective. He doesn’t abandon his law enforcement instincts, however, as he combines them with his knowledge of insects in investigating murders.
In keeping with the noir tradition, Riley finds himself in morally ambiguous spaces and occasionally writes his own rules.
“Lethal Fetish” opens with the mysterious deaths of a wealthy couple, found in their home wearing flea collars. Riley gets drawn into the mystery because he doesn’t want the blame to fall on his extermination company, which had been called in to treat an infestation.
But the investigation into one seemingly bizarre practice leads him into a world of abnormal practices that push the boundaries of comfort.
“Riley has to confront is what does it mean to be normal,” Lockwood said. “Why is it good to be normal? Who decides what’s normal?”
Just as he did in his first two novels, Lockwood drew on previous non-fiction work to inspire his fiction. In this case, one reference was his 2013 book “The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe and Love Insects.”
“That turned out to be a real well of information and research I could draw on,” he said.
All the unusual practices Riley encounters in the book are well-documented, Lockwood said, but they force him to differentiate between being uncomfortable and deciding something is morally intolerable. Lockwood said that’s a tension our culture struggles with today.
“When is something different, and when is something wrong?” he asked. “What’s the difference between being offended and being harmed?”
Lockwood joined the UW faculty 30 years ago as an entomologist in the College of Agriculture, with a focus 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.
He recently completed a short opera, “Locust: The Opera,” in collaboration with composer Ann Guzzo and artist Ashley Carlisle, about the disappearance of the Rocky Mountain locust in the early 1900s.
Lockwood is currently at work on some “flash operas,” short stories and stories for children. He’s collaborating with poet and UW professor Harvey Hix on a series of short pieces about the value of nature.