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Rob Osler's newest mystery worth sinking your teeth into

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Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

The biggest mystery is why there aren't more books like Rob Osler's Devil's Chew Toy. The delightfully fun new novel, described by some as a mystery "cozy," hit shelves earlier this year and launched the author into literary stardom, as critics and fans praised the newcomer's wit and attention to detail.

Devil's Chew Toy follows the misadventures of amateur sleuth Hayden McCall as he teams up with tough-as-nails Lesbians Hollister and Burley to investigate the disappearance of Hayden's one-night stand. What follows is 309 pages of chaos, calamity, and comedy as the unlikely friends search for clues all around Seattle.

Image courtesy of the author  

An unintentional comedy
Despite some of the highest praise for the book focusing on Osler's comedic writing, the author admits he never set out to write a comedy. "It is a humorous novel. It's funny, because I've had the fortune of being on a panel in September at Bouchercon, which is the world's largest mystery convention, and this year, the panel they put me on is 'Humor and Mystery.' It still surprises me, because I didn't set out to write a 'funny' book. People tend to think it's got some funny scenes and... lines and some funny characters. Although I wasn't intending to write a funny book, I wrote funny characters, so they say funny things and get themselves into silly situations."

While the humor may have come to Osler naturally, he worked hard to make sure the mystery in the novel kept readers hooked. "Writing it turned out to be quite an intellectual exercise, as any mystery writer will tell you," he said, "because to do it right when you figure out who did it or what happened, you should have been able to see it coming. All the clues are planted there — page 12, page 24, 35, 48 — so when you get to the end, you should be like, 'Oh, of course, it was that.' But to do that, to not give it away until you want to give it away and then have it not be some 'what, that didn't make any sense?'... the plot has to work."

If at first you don't succeed, write, write again
It took Osler a while to get the plot right, but just how long might surprise some. "Well, my answer of about ten years would leave someone to believe, 'Wow, this must be a Pulitzer Prize—winning novel if it took you ten years.' It's just this fun, little, light-hearted mystery," he said.

While the process, from conception to the day the book first hit shelves may have taken nearly a decade, Osler experienced a learning curve. "The first book, you're learning how to write a book, and you're learning so much about the craft. I first thought this book was done about five years ago at the San Francisco writers conference, when I was pitching it to agents. Only three things remain the same: the title, Devil's Chew Toy; Hayden McCall, the main character; and the inciting incident, which I won't give away, but it propels the action and gets the story going," he said with a laugh.

"The book was rewritten so many times," he continued. "The point of view changed, the number of characters changed, it just changed because you go into it with an idea and then through beta readers and editors, it gets wildly changed and then redefined into hopefully a solid book."

Inspiration and success
Osler wrote a mystery novel because "it's really what I love to read." Always a reader, he grew up a fan of classic "whodunit"-style mysteries. "I just remember, as a little kid, my mom reading Agatha Christie novels to me, and I just loved the 'whodunit' and the trail of breadcrumbs and the traditional amateur sleuth trying to figure out really who done it," he said with a smile.

"The other inspiration was Armistead Maupin, who wrote... Tales of the City. What I love about that is [that] at the heart of those books, it centers on friendship. In my book, you've got Hayden the Gay, ginger, amateur sleuth, middle school teacher, and part-time relationship blogger, although he's single, paired with Butch Hollister, who's got more confidence than she probably should have and drags him into this adventure. I just like that tension of the friendship but set with a whodunit at the heart of it. I love a good mystery, so hopefully, I wrote a decent one."

Osler's humility downplays his mastery of his craft. In the year since Devil's Chew Toy came out, he has already been asked to speak on a panel at the world's largest mystery convention. His success isn't limited to his first novel, however. Before finishing Devil's Chew Toy, Osler submitted a short story to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which was published last year.

"It was also kind of humorous and tech-bent," he said of "Analogue," his official authorial debut. "It won the Robert L. Fish Award this past April for a best short story published by an unpublished American author, and that is about the biggest prize that a short story could win, so I was shocked and delighted by that."

Photo courtesy of the author  

Equal time
Often Osler is asked why he chose to make his main characters Gay, especially because the storyline could function just as well with straight characters. His answer is always, "They don't have to be Gay, but it's more fun that they are. ...We're fun people, all LGBTQ+ people. We've got good humor, sarcastic, silly sometimes," he said laughing.

On a more serious note, Osler recognizes that his story, while it shouldn't be, is revolutionary. He features a nearly all-LGBTQ+ cast, focuses on a fun mystery, and never centers on trauma, relationship issues, or coming out.

"For decades, I think, all anyone who identifies in that rainbow of LGBTQ+ has probably read, I would guess, are predominantly books written by straight authors and starring straight main characters and protagonists, and the whole world is overwhelmingly straight," he said. "I've read those books, I don't know how many thousands of books in that category, and while there are plenty of LGBTQ+ authors writing LGBTQ+ stories and main characters, there aren't enough."

"I wrote what I want to read," he continued. "Something [where] the characters [are] Gay or Lesbian, and there's probably equal time... that's also unique, and almost unprecedented. It's not just a Gay book or a Lesbian book. Between Hollister and Burley and then Hayden, it's pretty much equal time Gay and Lesbian... I wanted to do that, intentionally. The characters don't have to be Gay and Lesbian for the story to work. It's somewhat incidental to the story, which was intentional."

Writing a cozy
While Osler did intend to write a trauma-free LGBTQ+ novel, he didn't realize he was also writing a "cozy," which is a subgenre of mystery in which the novel avoids violence, swearing, and sex.

"I didn't have a murder," Osler said, admitting this decision was bold for someone trying to break into the well-established genre of mystery. "So, there is a mystery, and hopefully the readers are engaged. It's like, what just happened, and that's the mystery, and you go along, and then hopefully the main protagonist [and] his investment in the story makes sense. Because he's not a detective, he's not a police officer. So why does he care, why is he going on this adventure — hopefully, that makes sense, and I gave him plenty of motive.

"Again, I didn't want to murder the Gay or the Lesbian. I just didn't want to do that. There are so many times where it's just the 'bury your Gays,' and I repeat, I didn't want them to be the villain, I didn't want them to be the victim, and I didn't want them to be nasty to each other. So guess what? All the villains are straight."

Despite Osler making all the bad guys heterosexual, he wants to make one thing clear: he is not heterophobic. He has straight friends. "All the bad guys are straight, you know, and it's like, I have probably more straight friends than LGBT friends, because the percentage of the world works out that way, and it's not like I'm anti-straight by any stretch, but it's just, like, you know, come on, let's have an LGBTQ+ book where they're the heroes and not the tragic heroes.

"Also, I didn't want to write an angsty coming-out story. I didn't want to write about AIDS or family drama or romance drama. I'm not poo-pooing that: authors can crank out some wonderful reads, [but] it's just not what I wanted to do. I wanted to pick a different lane."

Fun in Seattle
Setting the story in Seattle was also intentional. "I lived for nearly twenty years in Seattle, so I describe Seattle as my spirit city," he said, chuckling. "I wanted to set the book there, because anyone who has written a novel will tell you, you spend so much time with these characters and kind of go along on the ride with them. I wanted to do that in Seattle. It allowed me to relive those places, from Ballard to Fremont to Bainbridge Island, and all the places that they race around on their adventure."

Above all, Osler intended his novel to be fun. "I want [readers] to read the last page and go, 'That was fun.' Honest to God, in a nutshell, I want them to say, 'That was fun, I'll go along on another adventure with those two, those three"; if you count Jerry the 91-year-old, with those four; include the dog, that's five.

"It was also very intentional that it's a group. It wasn't just a lone wolf, just one kick-ass woman, although both Burley and Hollister are pretty kick-ass ladies, Hayden is anything but. But I wanted it to be this group of characters with hopefully an eye towards a series with a book two, a book three, that, you know, we can dial it up and down. I have a lot more tools and a lot more characters to play with."

Devil's Chew Toy is the kind of book where readers can forget about the glum hardships of the world. "I didn't want it to be challenging," Osler said, "just a light, easy-breezy, fun little read.

"Katrina McPherson, who is super accomplished, wrote the cover blurb for me — a lovely woman, Scottish, and hilarious, by the way. She called it a 'pacy romp.' I thought, yes, you get the book. It's fast-paced, and it's a romp.

"I just wanted it to be silly and light. The readers hopefully see it as 'oh, that's fun, I want to be with them.' Sometimes the world needs more silly."

More to come from Rob Osler
It may have taken Osler a decade to write his first book, but now that he has the hang of it, readers can expect to find more of his work very soon. "There's a follow-up to Hayden and Friends called Cirque du Slay," he said. "Something happens, and it's all set around this circus in Seattle."

"I sold a short story," he continued, "which will come out in a year. It features a fiftysomething, Nonbinary, cross-dressing amateur sleuth who is solving a crime. His name is Perry Winkle. Hopefully, I can turn that into 'the adventures of Perry Winkle,' because he's such a character.

"Then there's a historical novel set in 1908 Idaho, featuring a closeted Lesbian detective from Chicago who goes to Idaho to save her brother from the gallows. Her name is Harriett, but she's not afraid to do a good bit of sleuthing as Harry."

Osler hopes the next Hayden and Friends book will be out within a year and a half. But in the meantime, for readers looking for a fun escape, a mystery to try and solve, and a lovely tale about an unlikely friendship, Devil's Chew Toy is a definite must-read.