Award-winning author Ben Rehder keeps mystery—and comedy—alive in Blanco County
“I don’t want it to just be a suitcase full of drugs or money,” Ben Rehder says, describing the catalyzing crime in one of his comic mystery novels—the murder of a hobo nickel enthusiast and the theft of his valuable collection. “I always try to do something a little more exciting and a little more unique. It can’t sound like just another mystery.”
Known for his witty and humorous approach to crime writing, Ben has published 13 books between his two ongoing mystery series. He’s placed as a finalist for Edgar, Shamus, and Barry awards and has been included in best-of-the-year lists from top publications such as Publishers Weekly and Field & Stream.
Ben’s Roy Ballard Mystery series follows a freelance videographer turned investigator who uses his surveillance skills to solve crimes. Ben’s most popular series, the Blanco County Mysteries, tracks John Marlin, a virtuous game warden who is often called on by Blanco County’s sheriff, to apprehend murderers on top of his usual responsibilities of enforcing Texas’s hunting and fishing laws.
The Blanco County Mysteries are adored among Ben’s readership for their cast of endearing and quirky characters, such as humble and heroic John Marlin and Red and Billy Don, two well-intentioned good ol’ boys who are always getting into trouble.
“In a crime novel, you have to have a cop or an investigator, but I wanted something a little different, so I thought, ‘Why not a game warden?’” says Ben. “The wardens I’ve met are some of the best people you’ll ever meet. They’re in it because they love animals, protecting our resources, and helping people. And they love catching the bad guy. That’s John Marlin.”
And then there’s the sheer wackiness of the situations that Ben throws at his characters as he weaves the tales, all set against a rich backdrop of colorful, superstition-charged rumors of lingerie-clad deer, wild chupacabras on the loose, and six-foot-tall blonde seductresses wandering the woods.
“Hopefully, it’s also because the books are just damn readable,” Ben adds with a laugh. “My number one goal is to make people enjoy the page they’re reading right now and cut out all the stuff people aren’t going to read anyway.”
Ben selected Blanco County as the setting for the series in 1995 after he and his wife Becky purchased a cabin in Blanco and he began to tap into the pulse of life in the rural Texas Hill Country. The area’s relatively small population and limited police resources make it reasonable to assume that Marlin and the sheriff would work closely together to battle crime in their backyards.
Through the years, Ben has amassed a national readership, and he often corresponds with his fans, but he treasures feedback from Texans—and especially Blanco County residents—most of all.
“It’s so fun when I describe Yeager Creek Road and somebody goes, ‘I drive that road every day! I love it, and you even described the curve in it,’ or when I recount some story that supposedly happened in Blanco County and they say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard that,’” says Ben. “People want to hear about the small road off the beaten path or that metal barn out past Flat Creek Road.”
Ben has also written two poignant standalone novels, The Chicken Hanger and The Driving Lesson, which explore issues of immigration and physician-assisted suicide, respectively. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me that The Driving Lesson made them cry, and I’m proud of that,” Ben says. “After writing all these silly, wacky books for so long, it’s rewarding to know that I was able to go off into a more sensitive area and touch people.”
Ben’s writing career began modestly. While pursuing an English degree at the University of Texas, he got a job with an Austin advertising agency as a “runner” tasked with delivering documents and other project materials to and from clients. Over time, he developed friendships with Mary Summerall, head copywriter at the agency, and other members of the creative department.
Summerall eventually hired Ben as her assistant and allowed him to begin crafting headlines and developing ads with her team. When Ben graduated from UT in 1986, he had already won a prestigious ADDY Award from the American Advertising Federation. Ben worked with the agency for several more years and then went freelance in 1991. He credits his advertising background with helping him to develop his unique style and hone his meticulous writing process.
“I think I learned more about real writing—at least the kind of writing I do in my novels—from advertising than I ever did at school,” says Ben. “A lot of authors I know will just crank out their first draft and then completely chop it up so that it looks almost like a different book by the time they’re done. Maybe it’s my ad background, but I’m almost done by the time I finish the first draft because I’m kind of polishing as I go.”
He penned the first novel in his Blanco County Mystery series, Buck Fever, between 1998 and 2001 in pursuit of a New Year’s resolution to attempt to write a book. “Not to actually write one, but to try to write one, because then I knew I could meet the resolution and still not actually write it,” Ben laughs. “It took 20 months, but I actually did finish it!”
When Summerall encouraged Ben to get the book published, he found an agent and released Buck Fever and, eventually, six other novels with St. Martin’s Minotaur and TCU Press.
However, with the dawn of the Kindle, Ben negotiated for the rights and republished his entire bibliography himself through Amazon, a decision that has enabled him to achieve his dream of making a reasonable income doing what he loves: telling stories that make people laugh.
“When I put all the books out there, if you had told me they would do as well as they’re doing now, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Ben admits. “I’m no Stephen King or Lee Child, but I’m making a living from this, and that was my dream from the start. I’m having fun, and as long as people keep reading, I’ll keep writing.”
To learn more about Ben and his work, visit his website at benrehder.wordpress.com.