Many in Charlestown know Tom MacDonald as the director of Harvest on Vine food pantry, but when he’s not handing out food to the community, he’s writing crime novels.
Growing up, MacDonald was not an aspiring writer. While in an MBA program at Boston College (after 15 years as a computer programmer), McDonald discovered that he had a talent for writing.
So he enrolled in an MFA creative writing program at the University of Southern Maine, where he ventured into crime writing. He started experimenting with different kinds of crime stories, and the Dermot Sparhawk series was born.
It all started with ‘The Charlestown Connection,’ the first in the series about a half Irish, half Native American young man who takes it upon himself to solve crimes while recovering from alcoholism.
He did not intend for this to become a popular series, however. “I just wrote a novel with a protagonist—people liked it and I just kept going,” MacDonald said. He said people are drawn to the character of Dermot Sparhawk and he ended up turning into a serial character.
Sparhawk’s adventures continue in ‘Beyond the Bridge,’ ‘The Revenge of Liam McGrew,’ and the most recent release, ‘Murder in the Charlestown Bricks,’ which became available Oct. 1.
This newest tale tells the story of Sparhawk’s quest to find out who murdered a woman who was like a second mother to him. She was killed in the Charlestown projects, and MacDonald said that Sparkhawk is “not quite as emotionally balanced in approaching this one since he was so close to the woman.”
“He makes irrational decisions, does things that could land him in jail, and commits a few crimes on his own,” MacDonald added. “He really goes off on the edge and doesn’t exercise any time of rational logic.”
MacDonald said this novel took a couple of years to write—usually he can finish one in six or seven months, but he said he’s been so busy with work that this one took a little bit longer.
Aside from his work at St. Mary-St. Catherine, MacDonald teaches writing at Boston College. In the fall, he teaches a writing composition class focused on creative wiring prompts, and in the spring, he teaches a class where the students develop their own blogs and write blog entries.
MacDonald said he’s inspired by authors like Raymond Chandler, who he said was the “pioneer of the hard-boiled detective series,” as well as local writers like Robert Parker and George V. Higgins.
He also brings his experience at Harvest on Vine into the fictional stories, as Dermot Sparhawk works at the local Charlestown food pantry. “I didn’t think of [working at the food pantry] as part of a crime story,” he said, “but it’s a good part of the story.” He also consults his friend Dick Murphy, a lifelong Townie, about the authenticity of some of the events and ways the Charlestown characters behave in the novels.
His Number One consultant, though, is his wife Maribeth McKenzie, who gets to read all of his drafts and “weed a lot of stuff out,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald said he’d like to tell young writers that if they have a story to tell, “write a ‘don’t look back draft’—just keep pushing ahead until you finish.” He said that there’s a “tremendous sense of satisfaction when you finish that draft; it’s usually terrible, but now you’ve got the blueprint for your writing.”
MacDonald held a book launching celebration at the Navy Yard Bistro on Oct. 28, where a crowd of Charlestown people, mystery writing fans, and friends and family gathered to celebrate another book.
On Dec. 17 at 6:30 p.m., MacDonald will have signed books available at the Adams Street Library in Dorchester.