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Book Report: Let's hear it for those alternative printing sites

Thank goodness for university presses. While the big New York publishers languish, academic presses previously concerned with arcane subject matter have again and again taken up the slack and published books for the general reader. The University of Minnesota Press is one such establishment.

St. Paul author Larry Millett formerly published his fascinating Minnesota mysteries involving Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and St. Paul barkeep and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty with Viking Penguin in New York City. That's changed with his new novel, "The Magic Bullet" ($24.95), just turned out in Millett's home state.

What's more, the university press is also reissuing in paperback earlier Millett novels, including "Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders," "Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery," "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Alliance" and "The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes," all under the umbrella of Minnesota's Fesler-Lampert Heritage Book Series and all for $14.95 each.

Back to "The Magic Bullet:" It's set in 1917 in St. Paul, as the U.S. joins in World War I.

Local financier Artemus Dodge has been found murdered in his armored penthouse high above the city. How could this be?

He's been murdered with one bullet to his head in a locked and armored room 300 feet above downtown St. Paul.

James J. Hill's son Louis wants to know, so hires Shadwell Rafferty who keeps a bar in the Ryan Hotel. His investigation takes him to well-known St. Paul sites, including the old Ryan, the caves under Schmidt's Brewery and the streets of Ramsey Hill. As always Millett's command of verisimilitude is finely honed. (It doesn't hurt that he was architecture critic of the St. Paul Pioneer Press for 30 years.)

Another university press that a frequently departs from the straight and narrow is the University of Iowa Press. Its new release is titled "AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead" ($19.95 paper), edited by Dale Salwak.

In the book 18 distinguished literary scholars "are loosed from the chains of fact" to conduct imaginary interviews with long-dead writers like Henry James, Ezra Pound, George Orwell, Jane Austen and Edith Wharton.

The prolific biographer Jeffrey Meyers (George Orwell, John Huston, Arthur Miller) takes on Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century lexicographer, sage, and all-around crabby guy. It's not a pretty picture, but an interesting one:

"Mr. Johnson was indeed at home, taking tea with his companions in the parlor. The street outside smelled of horse manure and garbage; the house inside reeked of a damp mixture of cabbage and cheese from the kitchen, charred logs and dead ash in the grate, and the sweaty bodies of those sitting round the table. The plaster walls were stained and smeary windows filtered the pale light. I followed (the butler) across the creaky bare floorboards, suddenly aware of how clean I was....

"....seeing him in the flesh was a shock. (He) was grotesquely pale, with his rocky face all bumps and indentations, his parchment skin still scarred with scrofula, his huge arms resting on the table next to the bread and bacon. Tall and stout, with a commanding air, he slowly rose to greet me, his mountainous belly foremost. His brown suit looked threadbare, high wig shriveled, his collar and knee breeches were loose, his stockings wrinkled...."

And then the "interview" begins, in which Meyers skillfully unpacks the doctor's odd take on life in general and on Americans (like Meyers) in particular.

Meyers explains that he is an American and wishes to write a biography of the great man, to which Johnson replies

"Ah, that explains it. Your odd clothes and your peculiar speech. And I notice you wear your own hair -- such of it that remains. I am willing to love all mankind, except an American."

They continue and Johnson explains his antipathy to teaching, his views on Grub Street and all things English.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.