"I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone," Chrissie Hynde once sang, and Rick Riordan now knows exactly what she meant. Though he lived in Austin a decade ago, the mystery novelist was still taken aback by the changes that Michael Dell hath wrought in this mini-Silicon Valley along the Colorado River.
"It's absolutely nothing like when I lived here, so I totally had to relearn the town," Riordan says from his home in San Antonio. "But if you've got to do research, it's not exactly a tough assignment "
Riordan's "research" included staying at the Driskill Hotel, drinking copious amounts of alcohol at Scholz's Beer Garten and diving in Lake Travis (for which he got an open-water certification). He also rode with Travis County sheriff's deputies and visited the city morgue and jail before sitting down to write The Devil Went Down to Austin. What sounds like a treatise on satanism-dabbling sorority girls is actually the fourth outing for Tres Navarre, the tai-chi-practicing, margarita-and-Mexican-food-loving smart-ass San Antonio PI who, with his doctorate in hand, occasionally teaches medieval literature.
"It was the one I had the most fun with, but also the most troubling," says Riordan of the latest in the series that includes Big Red Tequila, The Widower's Two-Step and The Last King of Texas. Much of the plot of Devil finds Navarre trying to clear his brother Garrett of the murder of his best friend and partner in a faltering computer-programming business.
In previous books, Garrett served mostly as comic relief -- a rowdy paraplegic hippie equally obsessed with Jimmy Buffett music and pot. But for this one, Riordan had to flesh out the character in a way that dealt with Garrett's own personal pain and his sticky brother-father issues.
Riordan finds it easier with each passing book to get permission from people to tag along on their jobs and turn his observations into fiction. "If you say that you want to get your facts right, they're very helpful," he says happily. "No one wants to see their job misrepresented."
And if the bottom falls out, Riordan always has his day gig. Even though he makes a comfortable living through his writing, he continues to teach English, social studies and history at St. Mary's Hall Middle School. His only regret, it seems, came during his initial job interview at the school, when he gave his interrogator a copy of one of his books. "She came back with this blank face and said to me, 'You're not really like that guy in the book, are you?' I said no, and I promised not to judo-flip her. Ever."
Riordan's next book will be a "stand-alone" and will not feature Navarre or any previous characters. "It's a crazy idea that I'm very excited about, but I can't say anything about it," he demurs. What he will say is that it shouldn't be too long before Navarre and company come to Houston to solve a mystery. "I don't have an answer for exactly when," he sums up. "But I can tell you this: I will set one in Houston before I do in Dime Box."