No doubt serious scholars of Ed Gorman's extensive literary oeuvre would sniff, or even snicker, were I to suggest that Sam McCain was conceived at least twelve years before The Day the Music Died. I hate being subjected to academic scorn. This is why I would never suggest that arguably Gorman's most popular character became a gleam in its creator's mind's eye sometime during the writing of The Autumn Dead.
It is irrelevant, I would contend, that The Autumn Dead is only the penultimate Jack Dwyer novel in Gorman's debut mystery series. The Cry of Shadows comes out two years later, in 1990. But it's in The Autumn Dead that the Dwyer of the series' first three novels begins to reveal an evolving persona. One that will emerge a dozen years down the road to launch a ten-book run as lawyer/PI Sam McCain.
Additional evidence is the setting of The Autumn Dead, more defined than in the earlier novels: a small Midwestern town, unnamed, but with features strikingly similar to McCain's Black River Falls, Iowa.
There are finer details that would fit neatly into a comparison were that my aim here. I'll mention only one, the one that brings The Autumn Dead closest to the McCain novels in its effect on me. The one that left my heart aching with bittersweet memories long after I finished reading. The one that took me back to my own youth when dreams held real promise and disappointments seemed mere bumps along the Yellow Brick Road to a magical future.
Jack Dwyer trips back to those days from a vantage filled with reminders there is no magic behind the curtain in youthful dreams. A former high school flame prompts his journey in time when she appears out of the blue needing his help. She dies in his arms while dancing at their twenty-fifth class reunion. He soon learns she likely was murdered and that others of their former schoolmates could be involved. An ex-policeman, Dwyer sets out to learn what happened.
The Autumn Dead is the darkest and most violent of the four Dwyer books I have read (The Cry of Shadows is inexplicably out of print), and its violence exceeds any of the McCain novels. In fact it's the most violent of anything I've read by Gorman.
The writing is superb, as always, with the first-person narrator's signature self-deprecating humor and compassionate outlook. Dwyer's approach in confrontations is carrot/stick, with the stick always a last resort.
Gorman's characters are never uninteresting. While some appear initially as caricatures all reveal complexities enough that any one of them is plausibly capable of virtually anything. Not unlike real life.