My Dub Walker thriller series is set mostly in my hometown of Huntsville, AL. I recently wrote an article for South Huntsville Living, an online magazine about happenings in and around the “Rocket City.” Many of the places I grew up visiting find their way into these stories.
Link to article: http://southhuntsvilleliving.com/Author__D._P._Lyle__M.html
Huntsville Stories: Then and Now; Real and Imagined
by DP Lyle, MD
Since my childhood days in Huntsville, the city has changed in many ways; yet in other ways it’s exactly the same.
I was born in Huntsville Hospital, a place where I would later work during my summer breaks from studies at the University of Alabama. I worked in the lab. I learned to draw blood, start IVs, and perform tests in the various divisions of the clinical lab – – chemistry, pathology, microbiology, etc. The skills I learned during those summers paid off years later as a medical student at UAB in Birmingham.
After graduating from Huntsville High School in 1964, I left Huntsville to attend college in Tuscaloosa and then on to medical school at UAB, internal medicine residency at the University of Texas in Houston, and finally the Texas Heart Institute, also in Houston. I then found myself in Orange County, California where I’ve practiced cardiology for the past 35 years.
What’s changed in Huntsville during those years?
Sadly, many of the city’s landmarks no longer exist. The courthouse, where my grandfather passed time with his buddies, is gone. Replaced with a box. The Carnegie Library where I often studied and developed a love for books, gone. Big Spring Park, a place where I played too many baseball games to remember, swam at the community pool, and attended numerous picnics, has been reduced to a fraction of its former self. For me personally, these are sad and for the most part inexplicable changes in a city steeped in history and tradition. Yet, life marches on, as they say.
Still, there are many iconic structures remaining. The Russel Erskine hotel, where my parents often danced—they were accomplished ballroom dancers—still stands, even though it is now a retirement home and not the grande dame hotel it once was. Lewter’s Hardware remains exactly as I remembered it as a child. Goldsmith–Schiffman Field, where I played many a football game while attending Huntsville Junior High School and Huntsville High School, still stands though its future is in doubt. And of course, since food is important to every Southerner, many of the establishments of my childhood are still around: Gibson’s Bar-B-Q, the Big Spring Café, and Mullins to name a few.
In addition to practicing cardiology, I am also an author. I write both fiction and nonfiction. One of my series of books, the Dub Walker thriller series (Stress Fracture; Hot Lights, Cold Steel; Run To Ground) are set in Huntsville. Many of the locations that appear in these stories are complete fabrications while others call upon my childhood memories of places in and around the city that were special to me.
These stories revolve around three main characters. Dub Walker, my main protagonist, is a forensic science and evidence expert who for many years worked at the Alabama Department of Forensic Science, which sits near the city on Arcadia Circle. His best friend, Homicide Investigator T-Tommy Tortelli, works out of the South Precinct of the Huntsville Police Department. Claire McBride, Dub’s ex-wife and now ex-with-benefits, is an investigative reporter for a local television station. This trio moves in and around the city as they try to solve the crimes that confront them in each story.
Their favorite watering hole is called Sammy’s Blues-and-Q. it is a completely fabricated establishment but it sits where David Gibson’s Barbecue is located. Much of their crime solving takes place on the barstools of Sammy’s.
Dub lives on Monte Sano at the end of Old Church Road, which Huntsvillian’s will easily recognize as Old Chimney Road. Still one of my favorite streets in the city.
In Stress Fracture, the first murder occurs in the Russel Erskine:
From Stress Fracture:
The old Russel Erskine Hotel sat in the downtown area only a couple of blocks from where we stood. Once the city’s most famous hotel, it had been converted into a retirement home. Meant Petersen wasn’t a random deal. Getting in there wasn’t like crawling through someone’s window or walking through an unlocked garage door. And making it to the fifth floor and back without anyone noticing was the product of great skill and experience or incredible luck. With the lock intact, he either had a key—maybe an inside job?—or he was very good at working locks.
Dub’s dear friend and retired Madison County Sheriff Mike Savage Is murdered in his home on Chadwell Road. Later in the story, a major shootout occurs at the Parkway Place Mall:
From Stress Fracture:
The Parkway Place Mall sat at the intersection of Drake Avenue and Memorial Parkway. The main entrance, obscured by a newly constructed parking deck, faced the parkway. I hung a left into the ground level of the deck. Red and blue lights strobed off its low ceiling and the scattering of L-shaped support walls. Two dozen patrol cars, three ambulances, and twenty or so HPD and sheriff’s department officers congregated two hundred feet from the mall’s entrance. Other uniforms herded a hundred or so shoppers toward the far reaches of the deck to keep them from the line of fire.
Other locales include Huntsville Hospital (called Huntsville Memorial Medical Center in the books), Cummings Research Park, and of course the Marshall Space Flight Center.
There is simply no way to write about Huntsville without writing about NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center. It was such a part of the city and of my childhood that there was no way to ignore it. We built rockets in the backyard, as so many of my generation did. We felt the ground shaking, often interrupting sporting events for a minute or two, as Von Braun tested another booster. Hunteville definitely earned the moniker Rocket City.
Yet, as I began doing research for this book, I realized I had actually spent very little time on the grounds of “The Arsenal.” We played Little League baseball against a couple of the military teams and I had been to the officers club with my father a few times, but other than that I knew very little about it. So, I arranged a tour of the facility.
Nan and I were shocked when we showed up for the tour, expecting we would be with a group, but quickly discovered that it was a private tour, hosted by Protocol Specialist Gena Cox. During the tour, we met many wonderful people and saw many of the amazing projects NASA has underway at Marshall, including a jerky elevator ride to the top of the main test our where those boosters had rattled the ground so many times.
But one of the highlights, and the one that figured most into Stress Fracture, was a visit with Dr. David Hathaway. He is director of the solar imaging program for NASA and also was one of the inventors of the VISAR system. VISAR, or the Video Image Stabilization and Registration system, is a mechanism for digital photo and video enhancement that began when the FBI brought him a few seconds of footage from the scene of the Atlanta Olympics bombing. From that, the system was born. You’ve seen it before. When a surveillance camera or an ATM camera picks up a car in the distance or a suspect in the vicinity and the picture is too grainy to be of use, VISAR can often solve that problem. License plates can be read. Tattoos can be enhanced and identified. And faces, that are blurred beyond recognition, suddenly become recognizable.
In Stress Fracture, Dr. Hathaway appears as Dr. Wendell Volek. Dub employs his skills in enhancing a photo that is instrumental in tracking down the vicious killer that is stalking the city:
From Stress Fracture:
T-Tommy and I made our way through the security checks at the Redstone Arsenal and were again escorted to NASA headquarters. We met Dr. Wendell Volek in the same conference room as before.
Volek got right to it. He tapped a couple of keystrokes on his Mac laptop and a video appeared on the large screen that covered one wall. It was the video I had seen when last here, only now cleaner and brighter. The ceiling-mounted camera angled on the ornate central stairway at the Russel Erskine. A man moved into the frame, took the stairs two at a time, and disappeared as the stairs zigged to the right. Volek let the video run a few cycles and then worked the keyboard again. Now the same man came down the stairs and moved out of frame. Again, he let it repeat half a dozen times. A few more keyboard taps and a series of still images, mostly close-ups of the man’s head, appeared. In the final one, a partial profile could be seen as the man neared the bottom of the stairs. Volek left that one up.
Hot Lights, Cold Steel also offers many Huntsville locations. Coffee Tree Books and Brew and a home on Pratt Avenue figure into the tale:
From Hot Lights, Cold Steel:
Earlier we had swung by Sammy’s for dinner. Claire and I had catfish, coleslaw, and hush puppies, T-Tommy ribs and brisket and pecan pie with ice cream. We now sat in T-Tommy’s car along Pratt Avenue half a block from Slade’s house. Pratt was a divided street, its central esplanade lined with trees, their spring growth recently under way. The houses were older, most well over fifty years, but well kept. The street was quiet with only an occasional car rolling by. Most of the houses were buttoned down for the night. TVs glowed through a few windows, but no one roamed around outside.
Slade’s place was white clapboard, single story. A slope-roofed, brick-corralled porch extended across the front, and two large windows flanked the front door. The curtains were open, and I saw no lights inside. T-Tommy had called his house and gotten no answer. Slade could be in there, not answering his phone, sitting in the dark. Maybe his translucent blue eyes could capture light where there was none. Maybe he was watching us.
Also, High Rollers-not real but very reminiscent of the strip clubs out off University Drive:
From Hot Lights, Cold Steel:
T-Tommy and I arrived at High Rollers a shade past midnight. The twenty-foot-high windowless metal building sat near the county line just off West University. Flanked by a liquor store and a fireworks stand, it looked more like a warehouse than a den of sin. Except for the age-faded neon High Rollers sign, that is. The G was dead, and the O flickered as if taking its final breaths. Ten-foot-high painted images of nearly nude women, one blonde, one brunette, each snaking around a stripper’s pole, bracketed the neon lettering. Not exactly works of art, but you couldn’t miss them, so I guessed it worked.
Beneath the sign, a black canvas awning shaded the entry door. Two twenty-something guys, each familiar with the gym and sporting permanent flexes beneath black High Rollers T-shirts, guarded the entrance. One of them held the door open for us and mumbled something I couldn’t hear over the music that spilled out.
Even Maple Hill Cemetery becomes part of the Hot Lights, Cold Steel story. Maple Hill has always been an important place to me. My grandparents and a couple of cousins, particularly my cousin David Sutton, lived on Wells Avenue. David and I grew up playing in the cemetery. Football, baseball, and whatever else we could come up with to fill a warm summer day. Mostly however, I found Maple Hill Cemetery to be one of the most peaceful places on earth. The wonderful shade trees, the gently rolling terrain, and the city of tombstones of various design have always been special. My mother, a native of Huntsville who was born in Merrimack Village, is buried there. That makes it even more special.
But in Hot Lights, Cold Steel it takes on a more sinister tone:
From Hot Lights, Cold Steel:
The oldest and largest cemetery in the state, Maple Hill was the final resting place of nearly one hundred thousand souls. Its gently rolling terrain, winding paths, and hand-carved headstones were shaded by trees of many sizes and varieties. There were simple, flat grave markers, elaborate headstones, huge crosses and statuary, a mausoleum or two, and even a section for the Civil War dead. Its parklike atmosphere attracted those looking for a quiet place to walk or contemplate as well as visit the dead.
Today it wasn’t quiet. A crowd had gathered. Nothing like death to attract flies.
I leaned against the stone wall that surrounded Maple Hill near the McClung Avenue entrance, talking with Claire. The bodies had been excavated and carted off to the Department of Forensic Sciences. Claire had finished her on-site filming, and Jeffrey was loading his camera gear into the Channel 8 truck.
Run To Ground features scenes at Gibson’s Bar-B-Q, a place I’ve frequented since it opened in 1956. The best Bar-B-Q and biscuits around. And the pies? Amazing. In high school, while going through the brutal August two-a-day football practices, Charlie Pike, Lewis Brinkley, Paul Haley, Tommy Beason, and other teammates would gather there to rehydrate between practices. This was when Gibson’s was a bit further down the Parkway than where it currently resides. It was before the Parkway was elevated so cars whizzed by as we downed massive amounts of water and tea, made just right with extra lemon and sugar. And the wonderful folks at Gibson’s never charged us a nickel for any of it.
From Run To Ground:
Gibson’s Bar-B-Q sat along Memorial Parkway near Airport Road. Famous for Bar-B-Q and a competitor of Sammy’s, Gibson’s was also a local breakfast meeting place and the best biscuits you’ll find anywhere. And pies. Lord, they could make pies.
Booths and tables, mostly four-tops, each topped with a plasticized red-and-white checkered tablecloth, filled the large dining room. As usual, customers surrounded every table, the aroma of eggs and bacon hung in the air, and the murmurs of conversation and the clatter of forks attacking plates filled the room. We luckily found an empty booth near the back wall. Claire and I slid into one side but the collection of pies in the nearby pie case, things like pecan, chess, coconut, apple, and lemon icebox, distracted T-Tommy so he stopped to have a look before making his way to the other side of the booth.
I had scrambled eggs and biscuits, Claire just biscuits, lots of butter, and T-Tommy everything: eggs, country ham, patty sausage, grits, and a stack of biscuits. He topped it with a piece of chess pie. Even though Gibson’s coconut pie won best dessert in town, T-Tommy was always partial to chess.
When Claire asked about the rationale of pie with breakfast, T-Tommy grunted and said there wasn’t a law against it. Hard to argue with that logic.
Whitesburg Baptist Church also appears in the book. My old college roommate Ronnie Boles appears as its pastor. Talk about playing against type.
From Run To Ground:
By the time I turned off Whitesburg Drive at Sanders Road and swung into the parking lot of the Whitesburg Baptist Church, the thickening clouds had begun to spit a fine mist. The Porsche’s wiper blades stuttered back and forth, streaking more than clearing the windshield. Been meaning to change those for a month or so.
The church was over fifty years old. That is, Whitesburg Baptist had served its congregation for that long. The buildings were new and sparkling.
We parked in the visitor’s lot, hustled through the drizzle, pushed through the glass doors, and entered the south lobby. High-ceilings, a wall of windows, everything rosy-tan brick and marble, it had an atrium feel. A young woman looked up from behind the marble-topped reception desk and smiled.
“Welcome,” she said. “I’m Ashley. What can I do for you?”
“We’re looking for Pastor Boles.”
“Who should I say is asking for him?”
“I’m Dub Walker. This is Investigator Tortelli.”
Her smile flattened. She looked at T-Tommy. A crease appeared in her brow. “The police?”
“Just need a few minutes,” I said. “About an ongoing investigation.”
Her smile returned. A little forced this time. “Just a sec.”
Also represented are Walker Lumber Company—-based on Bartee’s Lumber, where I worked one long, hot summer—-the Marriott near the Space Museum, and Bridge Street Town Center:
From Run To Ground:
Bridge Street Town Center, the newest and most upscale shopping area in Huntsville, nestled along Old Madison Pike just a few miles from the Marriott hotel where Tim and Martha Foster had holed up. Open-air and European in style with broad walkways, park benches, and street lamps, Bridge Street straddled an hour-glass-shaped, man-made lake. An arched bridge over the lake’s central neck connected the two halves of the mall. A walking trail hugged the water’s edge. Tenants included clothing stores such as Chico’s and Ann Taylor, an Apple Computer store, a Westin hotel, and a dozen restaurants.
Tim lifted his sweat-soaked tee shirt away from his chest and flapped it. Barely nine and it felt as if the temperature was already nudging eighty. He and Martha were into their third and final lap around the lake when Tim spotted Adam Carlson, across the water, some two hundred feet away. Adam glanced their way but showed no sign of recognition, no wave, no change in his stride, and quickly turned his gaze back to the path in front of him. Tim nudged Martha with an elbow, and when she looked at him, nodded toward Adam.
“Look over there,” he said.
Martha’s gait hitched. She dropped her head and peeked over her sunglasses toward Adam. “Oh, my God. What should we do?”
“Nothing. He looked this way, but didn’t recognize us.”
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”
“Being here. Out in public.”
“You’d rather sit in a hotel room and stare at the walls?”
“No. But Investigator Tortelli told us to stay inside. Keep a low profile.”
“We are keeping a low profile.”
The Ledges also gets a nod in Run To Ground. Constructed by my dear friend and fraternity brother John Blue, The Ledges is one of the most impressive communities anywhere. California wishes it had communities as perfect.
From Run To Ground:
I did a little research. Rather, Claire did. I asked her to tap into her resources. Took her all of twenty minutes to get the scoop on the two men who sat across the table from me. We were in the dining area of the massive stone-and-wood clubhouse at The Ledges Country Club.
The Ledges, a high-dollar community that hugged the crest of Huntsville Mountain and overlooked Jones Valley, was one of Huntsville’s best neighborhoods. One of those where if you have to ask the price, move on down the hill. The dining room carried on that theme. Not exactly your typical golf course lunchroom set up. Double tablecloths, cream-colored over crisp white, turned ninety degrees, equally crisp white napkins, heavy silver flatware, and gold-edged china. Better than most high-end restaurants. Better than Sammy’s. Well, not better, just classier.
When I called Paul earlier, he said they had a noon tee time and would be having lunch around eleven. Said he’d leave my name at the guard house. He did, so here I sat.
I suspect that the take-home message here is that you can leave Huntsville, but Huntsville never leaves you. It’s a wonderful place to live. It’s a wonderful place to be from. It’s not only great fodder for fiction, it is where I learned the important life lessons that have guided me for over six decades. People often ask me what growing up in Huntsville was like. I always respond that the city is a true dichotomy. It is on one hand a sleepy Southern town with lots of churches and pickup trucks while at the same time being a cutting edge city in space and technology. I mean, growing up I always thought everyone had a space program in their backyard.
D. P. Lyle,MD is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, and USA Best Book Award nominated author of many non-fiction books (MURDER & MAYHEM; FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES; FORENSICS & FICTION; MORE FORENSICS & FICTION; HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS; and ABA FUNDAMENTALS: UNDERSTANDING FORENSIC SCIENCE) as well as numerous works of fiction, including the Samantha Cody thriller series (DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND, DOUBLE BLIND, and ORIGINAL SIN); the Dub Walker Thriller series (STRESS FRACTURE; HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL, and RUN TO GROUND); and the Royal Pains media tie-in novels (ROYAL PAINS: FIRST, DO NO HARM and ROYAL PAINS: SICK RICH). His essay on Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND appears in THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS and his short story “Even Steven” in ITW’s anthology THRILLER 3: LOVE IS MURDER.
Along with Jan Burke, he is the co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.
He is a practicing Cardiologist in Orange County, California.
Crime and Science Radio: