Lee Moler's experiences in Vietnam contributed to novel 'Baltimore Blues'


May 19, 1991|By Henry Scarupa

"Writing is a Walter Mitty occupation," says Lee Moler, author of "Baltimore Blues."

On a sunny spring day, he is sitting in the dining room of his home in Bel Air, overlooking an expanse of suburban lawn, while nearby a lone parakeet and a pair of finches chatter in separate cages. Arms planted on the table in front, he could easily pass for the main character, Lowell Ransom, the disaffected private detective who wages relentless war against Arab saboteurs up and down the Baltimore-Washington corridor, in the thriller published this month by St. Martin's Press ($17.95).

Like the mordant Ransom, the sandy-haired writer is a Vietnam vet in his early 40s, born in Elkins, W.Va.; a former pencil pusher for Social Services; one-time owner of an aging 1980 blue Toyota; husband to a slim, pretty woman, in this case Charlotte; and the father of two girls, Stephanie, 8, and Caitlin, 7. Reality and fiction merge Walter Mitty style.

While arguing that the hero of his first novel is not wholly patterned on himself, Mr. Moler concedes it's less than coincidence that he and his protagonist share many characteristics.

"You know the advice they give young writers," he says, with a grin. "Write about something you know. Even though the story is made up, it helps to draw on experience."

Much of that experience was gained in the Vietnam War, while serving with an armored cavalry unit during 1969 and 1970. It's hardly surprising Ransom battles his enemies in the book with the go-for-broke recklessness of a search-and-destroy mission, employing the same M-79 grenade launcher and M-16 rifle in firefights off Butler Road in Baltimore County. His allies in these skirmishes are the hillbilly Walter Samski and the former noncom, Daz, both 'Nam veterans.

"Most Vietnam vets have a certain cynicism and restless," elaborates Mr. Moler. "In some ways the whole book came out of my Army experience. Once you've been in the military, it always remains a part of your character even after you leave."

The trade publication Library Journal has termed the book "intriguing escapist fare," while the Kirkus Reviews observed that readers of contemporary hard-boiled adventure will enjoy the "fast-paced thriller."

Calling Lee Moler a "big talent," with many of the qualities of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, Baltimore writer Thomas F. Monteleone says, "This guy's good. He can really write. He has a nice first-person voice. His language sings, but it's not literary, which I hate.

Mr. Monteleone, who is the author of 20 books and more than a hundred published short stories, read "Baltimore Blues" in manuscript, and liked it so much he recommended it to his New York agent,Howard Morhain. Mr. Morhain agreed, took on the book and sold it to the first editor who read it.

The thriller opens with Ransom trailing a guy who's supposedly two-timing his wife. Before long he's in the thick of a plot that involves mysterious doings at a small defense plant north of Baltimore; a couple of murders, the first in Cockeysville and the other off Belfast Road; a young, masochistic sexpot; and deadly Arab hit men.

The fast-moving adventure spills out over the countryside, from Belman (read Bel Air) north of the city to Washington's Capitol Hill, with stops in Baltimore at a string of Asian restaurants near 33rd Street.

Although Mr. Moler has lived in Maryland since 1955, graduated from Bel Air High School and knows the setting intimately, he used area maps to make sure he plotted the action accurately.

He began writing the book in the summer of 1988, a time when Arabs did not top the list of literary bad guys, and notes the choice was entirely serendipitous.

"I wanted somebody who had a lot of money and was coming into the U.S. market in a big way," he says. "I also wanted somebody who had an ax to grind, who would be motivated to do all that [dirty work]. It's not that I don't like Arabs. I simply needed someone who fit the scenario."

Mr. Moler has completed six chapters of his next novel, continuing the exploits of the brash Lowell Ransom. He works three 12-hour days a week as a respiratory technician at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center, leaving him the other four days in which to write.

He began writing poetry and short stories while in the Army, with the results ending up in the bottom of his footlocker. Later, majoring in journalism at West Virginia University, he wrote for the Daily Athenaeum, the school paper. But it was not until the mid-'70s after graduation that he seriously took up the pen, attempting two novels, which he never finished.

Discouraged by the formidable odds against getting a first novel published, he digressed for the next few years, writing plays. He wagered theater would be more receptive of unknown talent, and won the bet. In 1987 the Baltimore Playwrights Festival produced his "Bop."

About that time Mr. Moler changed the course of his writing. For years he had been an avid fan of such authors as Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, Ross Macdonald and James M. Cain, among others. He felt their writing represented some of the best in American fiction, providing keen insight into the life of the nation. So . . . why not become a genre writer?

"In my earlier novels, I was writing serious fiction," he recalls. "My ultimate intent is to make a living writing. I read that only 5 percent of the writers of serious fiction make a living at it, whereas somewhat over half of the people working in genre fiction are making a living.

"Well, I thought to myself why spit into the wind when you're starting out?"

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