Jefferson City native Allen Eskens' latest novel is his literary homecoming to Missouri.
"Nothing More Dangerous," released Nov. 12, is Eskens' sixth novel — and the first manuscript he ever wrote.
The book follows teenager Boady Sanden as he navigates high school and complicated race relations in the Ozark hills of fictional Jessup, Missouri.
"This is literally the story that I became a writer to write," Eskens said. "I started writing this story back in 1992. I had just gotten out of law school and I was trying to find something I could do to exercise my creativity, and I started writing a story about this 15-year-old boy growing up in Missouri."
"The story takes place back in 1976. The protagonist is a 15-year-old boy," Eskens said. "I lived in Missouri in the '70s as a 15-year-old boy, so I hearken back to my days there in Missouri to write this story."
Eskens grew up in Jefferson City and graduated from Helias High School before going to college and law school in Minnesota, where he practiced law for 25 years before closing his practice in 2016 to write full time.
Primarily a mystery writer through his first five published works, Eskens said "Nothing More Dangerous" is more "literary in nature."
"The mystery is more of a catalyst. It's there to weave different threads of the novel together as opposed to being the centerpiece of the novel," he explained. "Unlike most mysteries, the story is not focused on solving the crime — that's an important element, but it's not the main element of the novel."
Just as Eskens enjoyed returning to Missouri through his writing, he's happy to see his original foray into fiction finally published.
"Over the course of writing those five other novels, I came to appreciate how important it was to not only see the story from my protagonist's point of view but also understand the secondary characters, the minor characters, how they see the world," he said. "And adding back stories for them changes how they act and react within the scene. It fleshed out the world of characters more than it was before."
For example, there's Thomas Elgin, whose family moves in across the road from Boady's.
"Coming to know the Elgins — a black family settling into a community where notions of 'us' and 'them' carry the weight of history — forces Boady to rethink his understanding of the world he's taken for granted," Eskens' synopsis of the book reads. "Secrets hidden in plain sight begin to unfold: the mother who wraps herself in the loss of her husband, the neighbor who carries the wounds of a mysterious past that he holds close, the quiet boss who is fighting his own hidden battle."
Then there's Lida Poe, the black woman who keeps the books at a plastics factory in Jessup, who disappears mysteriously along with $100,000.
"As the mystery of her fate plays out, Boady begins to see the stark lines of race and class that both bind and divide this small town — and he will be forced to choose sides," the synopsis reads.
Despite their common background, Boady Sanden's story isn't Eskens' and Jessup isn't Jefferson City — but a hometown landmark does make an appearance in "Nothing More Dangerous."
"There is a scene where the characters are driving through Columbia to Jessup, and they pass through Jefferson City," Eskens said. "They stop at Zesto, actually, on U.S. 50."
Eskens himself will return to Jefferson City this week — he'll sign copies of "Nothing More Dangerous" from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday at Downtown Book & Toy.
He'll also give a presentation and book-signing at 6 p.m. Friday at Skylark Bookshop in Columbia.