Last Exit for Betrayal is the first mystery novel by author G.W. Conklin, a history enthusiast who has written about the Civil War and the 134th New York Infantry Regiment. When I saw that the book was a mystery and based in Cape May, I was intrigued. I wanted something different than the lovey-dovey books I usually read, so I had my fingers crossed in hopes this mystery would keep me turning the pages. I thought I knew who the antagonist was, but each chapter had me rethinking as I read, and the history intertwined with how Cape May is today was perfect.
G.W. Conklin spoke with us via email about his inspiration for the novel and the research that went into it. For me, Last Exit was a page turner. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
We’ve done our best to keep this review spoiler free.
Why did you choose Cape May as the setting?
I’ve always enjoyed fiction that is set in real places, primarily because I believe that every town or region has its own look and feel that helps set the tone for the action taking place in the story. My family has been coming to Cape May for many years, whether it be summer at the beach, a Victorian-style Christmas, or February when it feels like you have the town to yourself. It is truly our home away from home, so what better setting for my first novel.
What inspired you to write the book?
I love a good mystery. Watching as the plot evolves, tracking the clues, and seeing how the characters interact and deal with the circumstances they are confronted with are, for me, the keys to how well a story works. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, but sometimes the pieces can have some pretty fuzzy edges. Crafting a story that is both enjoyable and fits together well was something I wanted to try my hand at. Hopefully, I accomplished those goals.
Did you write the book while you were in Cape May?
No. I am a very deliberate writer. I need to be at my desk, looking out the window, and without interruption for a writing session to work. On the other hand, I love to explore and take the back roads wherever I go. So, while the writing itself took place at home, there was plenty of time spent on some of the more off the beaten paths in and around Cape May. One example is the Fisherman’s Memorial, a key location in the book that I venture to say most tourists have never seen. It’s definitely well worth the time to turn down those side streets.
How long did it take to come up with this story line?
I first conceived of my protagonist, Porter Benjamin, about ten years ago. I liked the idea of a police chief who grew up, got married, raised a family, and spent his whole life in Cape May suddenly faced with solving a series of crimes so different from the untroubled vision of the town we all experience when we visit. The story line evolved over time in the back of my mind and over the course of my many visits but started to really come together over the last year.
Can you describe your writing process?
I am a creature of habit when it comes to writing. I work from a story outline, but it’s not written in stone. It’s more designed to keep me from wandering too far off the path as I progress through the story. I don’t look too far ahead while I write, and I’m often as surprised as my characters are by what happens next in the plot. I try to write a full chapter each time I sit down to write, even if it’s a little on the rougher side. Then, I put it away for a day or two before I polish it up and refine it. It is during that stage that I often come up with the framework for the next chapter.
Since I tend to write in the morning, I usually have a big cup of coffee by my side while I’m writing. Other than that, just water is fine.
What advice would you give a new writer?
My main advice would be simple. Just write! Get words on paper. I know from my own experience that it’s too easy to get caught up in the process and the “idea” of writing. If you spend too much time making sure your mindset is just right or that the stars are perfectly aligned, you’ll find way too many reasons to wait until tomorrow.
Was there a playlist or certain type of music you listened to while writing Last Exit for Betrayal?
I like listening to music when I write. It has to be music that helps set the mood for the story, and it definitely can’t have any lyrics, which tend to distract me and interfere with my thought process. Most of the music comes from movie soundtracks. A Beautiful Mind, Braveheart and The Cider House Rules are a few examples of soundtracks that are conducive to facilitating my creative juices. I like to think of it as my personal soundtrack for the book.
Did you experience writers block? How did you overcome that?
To be honest, there weren’t too many times that I struggled with writer’s block while working on this book. When it did happen, I would just call it a day and put my writing aside or possibly spend some time proofreading. For me, the bigger challenge came on those days when the plot veered off in a totally unexpected direction, and I had to determine whether I should pursue that change or rein it in a little.
Turning back to the characters, were you or is someone you know a police officer?
I have had friends over the years who were police officers, but I have never been one myself. I’ve always been fascinated, however, by how police and detectives solve crimes by piecing together the clues, whether through using forensics or applying good old-fashioned police instincts. Hopefully, I’ve been reasonably accurate in describing the work they do and given them the justice they deserve.
Officer Burnside and Chief Benjamin had a great camaraderie.
The relationship between Porter [Burnside] and Mark [Benjamin] grew over time. It is a perfect example of how characters develop their own personalities over the course of writing a book. Starting out, I saw them much more as co-workers with only a professional relationship. Their friendship grew on its own, much like they do in real life.
What is your favorite part of the book and why?
My favorite part of the book is the relationship between Porter and Kim. I find that often mystery writers feel a need to have conflict between the protagonist and his wife or girlfriend. I think it’s a way to give some edginess to the lead character. I wanted their relationship, which started in childhood, to be a true lifelong partnership between two people who are different in many ways, but genuinely in love with each other. It’s a relationship that Mark and his girlfriend Kristen recognize and hope to have for themselves.
If they were to make a movie of your book, who would you cast and why?
I see Porter as a younger Gary Sinise, unassuming but confident. He’s not someone trying to draw attention to himself. I think Ryan Reynolds would fit the bill. Mark Burnside is a little flashier, so maybe Zac Efron. Porter’s wife Kim would be played by Kate Hudson, and Andrew Willington would have to be played by Alec Baldwin. I think that more than uses up my casting budget for the movie.
What research did this book require?
I did most of that research through books and videos, of which there are many.
In terms of Cape May itself, the research consisted of many visits over many years. The other stuff in the book was a little harder, everything from the effects of decompression sickness to the basics of diving to how visas work. Fortunately, you can Google almost anything, and I became a pro. I have no idea how I would have written this book before the internet.
How true was the story of the USS Emily Vincent?
The story of the Emily Vincent is based loosely on the Admiral Dupont, a Civil War era merchant ship that went down after a collision in 1865. It was carrying troops and supplies from New York City to Virginia and sank with about twenty members of the crew aboard. It lies in about 150 feet of water about 32 miles off Cape May and is a popular dive site.
Most of the research regarding the Emily Vincent revolved around what happens when an undiscovered wreck is found. There are literally hundreds of wrecks off the Jersey coast alone, many known but also many unknown. What happens when a new one is discovered? Who owns it and its contents? I didn’t know much about the Law of Finds or the Sunken Military Craft Act when I started out, but I learned it’s not nearly as simple as finders keepers.
Have you ever looked for treasure?
I can’t say I’ve ever looked for any real treasure, just sea glass and shells on the beach with my wife. That’s treasure enough for me.
What made you think of having the beach cleaning tractors as part of the investigation?
When my family first started coming to Cape May, we were always fascinated by the beach tractors. They came out at night with their bright lights and churned back and forth along the beach, leaving only their tracks behind in the sand in the morning. We started jokingly saying “there’s Walter” whenever we saw one though I’m not sure where that name came from. So, Walter had to be a character in the book.
How did you choose the coordinates 38.7620N 74.1187W?
I’ve always been fascinated by maps and nautical charts, so I picked those coordinates randomly from a chart of the waters off Cape May. They match the depth and distance from the coast needed for the book. Whether there is a wreck there, I have no idea. Maybe somebody should take a look.
Have you been to the real locations mentioned in your book?
I’ve been to all of the real places I mention in the book, and every one is a place that I love. There are a few locations in the book that are completely fictitious, such as the Captain’s Watch Motel and Albany Avenue, but the vast majority of places mentioned are ones that my family and I visit frequently when we’re in town.
Of all the places mentioned, which one is your favorite?
I would have to say my favorite place is the town of Cape May itself. Whether it’s a leisurely stroll along the quiet side streets, or dinner outside on the mall, or an evening spent sitting on a porch on Jackson Street, there is no better place in the world to be.
Do you have a favorite beach?
It’s impossible to pick a favorite. They’re all so different and special in their own way. My family has created so many great memories of summers spent basking in the sun at Steger Beach. On the other hand, the Cove is a truly beautiful spot, and it’s hard to beat the magic of Sunset Beach at sundown. Secluded Higbee Beach is perfect if you want to be on the bay, and then there’s Poverty Beach, which of course is anything but poor.
Where in Cape May do you stay?
When I come in the summer with my family, we usually stay in one of the condos on Jackson Street. It provides quick access to the beach and the mall. Off season, my wife and I love to stay at the Queen Victoria B&B. We’ve been coming there for many years, primarily at Christmas and early spring.
Finally, are you working on another book based in Cape May, and if so, will it be a mystery?
I’ve already started working on a sequel and am hoping Porter Benjamin will be the focus of a series of Cape May mysteries. Who knows what adventures await him, and there are a few loose ends in Last Exit for Betrayal that might need to be tied up along the way.
You can follow G.W. Conklin on Twitter.