Tom Harley Campbell has done a lot in his 70 years on Earth. The Dayton native has been a carpenter, musician, songwriter, journalist and machinist, but one credit he had not attained was verified author of fiction. That changed in August when Cayuga Lake Books published his debut novel, “Satan’s Choir.”
This crime story, the first in a projected mystery series, is set in Dayton, in modern times, but includes flashbacks to the late 1950s. While it features real landmarks like Eastwood Lake, it is a complete work of fiction concerning police detective John Burke’s investigation of a dead priest with possible links to child sexual assaults. He is in his final days as the supervisor for the Dayton Police Department’s homicide squad and has to confront some unresolved childhood trauma while working to solve one last case.
“My first idea was a coming-of-age story with four young kids on this journey to seek revenge on a priest who had abused them,” Campbell said. “Then, as I started writing it, I realized it’s going to be a cop story. I said, ‘Somebody has got to be investigating this or something.’ I didn’t really know how else to start so that’s how it happened. The main character, John Burke, came out pretty quick when I started writing so that idea was the acorn that grew into this book.”
The music man
“Satan’s Choir” may be Campbell’s first published novel but he has been creating content for years. Ralph Stanley, Claire Lynch, the Seldom Scene and Chris Thiele are among the acts to record his original compositions. Local fans of bluegrass and old-time music in the 1970s, might remember his time as bassist for the Hotmud Family. He performed live with the group and appeared on several albums.
“That was a fun time,” Campbell said. “The Hotmud Family hosted every Wednesday night in the Living Arts Center in Dayton and that was a job. I don’t think we got paid for it but it was a regular commitment in that auditorium. It would hold about 100 people and it was free so it was packed every week. We got local bluegrass and old-time bands and other people we knew coming through town to perform.
“We did that for quite a while and it was live on WYSO,” he continued. “That was at the same time Garrison Keillor started his show. We were kind of right there with him, broadcasting on a local NPR affiliate, but more people heard his show.”
Campbell left the Hotmud Family in September 1976. He left Dayton the following summer and headed to Upstate New York to form a new string band called Michael, McCreesh and Campbell. The Ohio expat spent time in a handful of different cities, including Poughkeepsie and Schenectady, before settling in Ithaca in 1981.
“My wife, Annie, lived in Trumansburg, which is right outside of Ithaca,” Campbell said. “We knew each other from the days of the Highwood String Band and the Hotmud Family, just being on the circuit together. She knew I was coming to town and she needed somebody to paint her house. I needed a place to live so I moved in and never moved out. That was 40 years ago in August.”
Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
A Dayton story
Campbell has been gone for four decades but he was born and raised in Dayton. He grew up in Riverside and attended Carroll High School. He drew heavily on his memories of the Miami Valley to realistically capture the settings and the time periods. There are numerous regional mentions in the book, from WYSO and Jay’s Seafood to the University of Dayton and Wright State University.
“Several people have said it’s almost like the city of Dayton is a character in the book,” Campbell said. “I love that comment so much because that’s what I wanted. How much fiction is written about Dayton? I wanted to highlight it and that was fun. The woman who did all the editing actually told me I put too much about Dayton in there. I ended up cutting quite a bit out because she said it wasn’t essential. That was just me wanting to plug Dayton.”
Campbell wrote the first draft of “Satan’s Choir” a decade ago but struggled to find an agent or publisher because of the touchy subject matter.
“I sent the first draft out, trying to find an agent,” he said. “They liked it but because of the pedophile priest thing, they said they couldn’t get it published and it was true. Several publishers told them right out, ‘You aren’t going to get this published.’ That’s when I said, ‘To hell with it, I’ll write a second book.’ So, I did the second book and then let them sit for a long time.”
That could’ve been the end of Campbell’s dreams of becoming a novelist had he not received a nudge from a family member.
“It was my brother, Harry,” Campbell said. “The December before COVID, he said, ‘You really ought to get back on the horse with this. These are good and they should be published.’ So, I started again and, again, I had the same problems with the subject matter. Then, I found this small publishing company right in Ithaca.
“They didn’t publish that kind of thing at all,” he continued. “They mostly publish literary fiction, poetry and some nonfiction. They had never done any genre fiction like that at all so it was really cool they did it.”
More info: tomharleycampbell.com.
Contact contributing arts and music writer Don Thrasher at email@example.com.
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