Bank robberies, high-speed chases and ticking bombs—they’re all part of the quintessential mystery novel. Though there may be a good-looking detective-type sifting through the evidence and nondescript clues, it’s really up to you—the reader—to solve the case before time (the pages) run out.
That’s where Phil Rustad comes in.
“I’m not a person who had a lifelong dream of being a writer,” he says. “I’m a storyteller.” Still, the 17-year Plymouth resident is transferring his love of elaborate, suspenseful scenarios into his first novel, Dart (Third Child Press, 2010), and his upcoming sequel Alamo, North Dakota, due out this May.
Fair warning: You’re going to want to brush up on your investigative skills before you start reading, because Rustad isn’t giving anything away.
After growing up in Minnesota and attending Hopkins schools, Rustad attended college at the University of Minnesota, starting out as a pre-med major and switching to business his sophomore year. Since then, Rustad has held jobs in sales and marketing, working with large manufacturing companies and currently in residential real estate, where he’s been for nearly 12 years.
His love affair with mystery novels started when he was standing in the Milwaukee airport on his way home from a business trip in 1987. He went into an unassuming magazine store and found himself unenthused about any of the rags on the rack. However, there was a book cover that caught his eye. “It was the paperback version of Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October,” he says. Rustad started reading works by similar authors. Along the way he shifted from the techno-thriller novel to the murder mystery genre, and soon he was figuring out the plot before he was supposed to, making for an anticlimactic end to the stories. So Rustad thought, maybe he could write his own murder mysteries—ones for avid readers like himself—that would intentionally lead people astray, knocking readers off the scent before revealing the climatic conclusion.
Rustad developed his first mystery plot beginning in the early ’90s; it wasn’t until 2006 that he actually put Dart down on paper.
Getting to Know Your Character
Rustad’s eclectic background is always showing up in his books, paving the way for unique and unpredictable story lines full of character and compelling quirks. “It either means I’m interested in a lot of different things or I couldn’t make my mind up,” he says with a laugh.
One of the running themes throughout Rustad’s books is that of military history and firearms, two things he became familiar with during his days in the manufacturing industry. His initial interest was followed by lots of reading and research, until it burgeoned into what he calls “an extreme fascination.”
Along another tangent, Rustad and his wife Cynthia have developed an interest in dog-show judging, which will make an appearance in his third book, Judge’s Choice. What started in dog-training classes 25 years ago has turned into stints as international show judges. “It’s a sport or a game you play with your dog,” Rustad says of the obedience-centered events they’ve come to know and love. These gigs bring them around the world to places like the Bahamas and Alaska. You guessed it: Rustad included the slushy streets of Alaska in Dart after seeing and experiencing the location firsthand.
The Plot Thickens
We all know the plight of a storyteller is to tell the stories of the people and places around him or her, making the listener (or in this case, the reader) feel like they are experiencing the events and emotions of the story themselves.
Take, for instance, Rustad’s first novel, in which detective Dan Neumann—a character loosely based on a close friend who’s also a retired police officer—heads up the investigation of a bank holdup gone awry. “I’ve tried to make Dan Neumann more believable,” Rustad says. “Dan’s not Superman, but he has to be extraordinarily sharp.”
Rustad also pays close attention to what’s going on in the news and even picks the brains of his police officer friends and acquaintances for their own experiences and stories. With a tremendous amount of respect for them, he remarks, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
The places Rustad’s stories are set are well-thought-out as well. Stemming from a tip from his father, Don, his second novel is titled Alamo, North Dakota, a suggestion to which Rustad initially responded, “Is there such a place?” The plot required the story to take place in North Dakota, so Rustad did some research and found out that his grandparents actually lived in Alamo from 1917 to 1920. Rustad and his dad took a trip to check it out. As they rounded a bend in the road, clusters of grain elevators and railway ride-aways appeared in the distance: Alamo.
“I had this feeling inside me that I was going home,” Rustad says. “This felt like a place I belonged because my grandparents had been there.”
Though he sort of stumbled into the writing profession, Rustad has found much to enjoy about his newfound hobby—and he does still call it a hobby. “It’s very satisfying,” he says.
He remembers receiving the first proof in the mail after hundreds of hours of work, thumbing through the pages in shock that he had written each word. Rustad continues to keep up his craft, sitting down and writing every day. Simply put, “The more you write, the better you get.” He also keeps up on his reading, thanks to some words of advice from well-known author Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Among his latest nightstand reads: Mind Hunter by Jon Douglas and Wolf Country by John Sanford.
However, writing and publishing a novel isn’t without its hardships. Rustad recounts the challenges of getting Dart on store shelves.
“Most successful people reach a point where they have to look themselves in the mirror and [decide if they] have faith in what they’re doing—that it’s worth the effort and risk they’re putting in,” he says. And it’s in those moments of doubt and hesitancy that Rustad is undoubtedly grateful for the support from those around him—namely, his wife and father.
And you can bet if they make an appearance in one of his upcoming novels, they’re bound to be the heroes.
Meet Phil Rustad at the Bloomington Writer’s Festival:
9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Authors will be on hand to sign their works at the book fair from 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m.
Bloomington Theatre and Art Center
1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd.
Between Two Book Covers
A sneak peek at Phil Rustad’s current and upcoming novels.
Nearing the end of a successful career, Minneapolis homicide detective Dan Neumann is looking forward to retirement and a relaxing summer riding his Harley, woodworking and writing another textbook on ballistics. But Neumann’s leisure plans go up in smoke when law enforcement calls on his expertise to investigate a murder involving a weapon so sophisticated, so lethal, it’s never been seen before.
Realizing he’s up against intelligence and formidable skills equal to his own, Neumann pursues the shooter around the country, determined to crack his last case. Always one step behind, the aging detective follows an ever-bloodier trail from Alaska to Arizona, murder to murder, enlisting the help of a particularly interesting deputy sheriff along the way. The chase leads to the shores of Lake Superior, whisper-close to the murderer. But is it close enough?
Alamo, North Dakota
Homicide detective Dan Neumann was happy to hear his best friend’s voice on the phone until he heard Pete’s words: “I need your help. Someone killed Grams.”
Grams was Pete’s grandmother and everybody else’s best friend. She had played an important role in raising Pete and just about everyone he knew—including Dan. Her murder demanded Dan’s involvement.
Everyone assumed the break-in at Gram’s home in the upscale Minneapolis suburb was a random burglary gone wrong but it soon became clear that Grams was targeted. In his search for the killer, Neumann pays scant attention to laws or jurisdictions. This was personal.
But he hadn’t expected a professional hit man would show up to complete the killing of Pete’s family, or that he would be digging up deeply buried family secrets. Nor did he expect his girlfriend, Arizona sheriff’s deputy Maria Fernandez, would need to save his hide.
Following the evidence into a land of multi-billion-dollar mineral rights, Dan finds a complicated, ugly world of fraud and conspiracy inhabited by men whose greed respects no one, not even family.
As winter’s fury swirls around them, Dan faces down the killer in territory he never expected to find himself, “about 30 miles from the middle of nowhere,” in Alamo, North Dakota.