Previous mystery novels by Dr. Albert Bell of the Hope College history faculty have been set as far away as modern-day Italy and the ancient Middle East.
His latest, "Death Goes Dutch," takes place closer to home, in West Michigan.
The plot centers on the return of the now-grown son given up for adoption by the unwed daughter of a wealthy Grand Rapids furniture family. With the help of a social services worker, who is the novel's narrator, he learns of his mother's identity and that she died under suspicious circumstances five years before. Given the situation, his appearance isn't greeted with unrestrained joy by all of his relatives.
"I thought that would be an interesting situation," said Bell, a professor of history. "What if you introduced an adoptee into a family that wasn't happy to see him?"
Bell notes that while the family's status is derived from Grand Rapids's furniture-making heritage, the clan itself is strictly fictional and not meant as a stand-in for a real-life counterpart. While some of his specific locations are also fictional creations, he has taken care to convey his setting accurately, not only drawing upon his experiences as a 27-year West Michigan resident but by conducting additional research for the book.
"I did try to be as accurate as possible," he said. For example, he noted, "I visited the Kent County Courthouse and the jail and other places that are mentioned. I even talked with the Grand Rapids Police Department about fingerprinting - I just wanted to know how they handled that."
Just as his earlier novels have drawn on his interests as a historian, Bell has brought his own life experiences to the book.
His wife Bettye Jo, for example, had worked for a social services agency in Grand Rapids with the primary role of reuniting adoptees with their birth parents. His protagonist is a Korean-American woman who was an adoptee herself. Bell and his wife raised two daughters they had adopted from Korea.
Bell has dedicated the novel to an aunt who was always supportive of his work and died in 2003 - before he had an opportunity to share a draft with her. Also in her honor, he has used the first names of family members for a number of the book's characters.
"So I've had a lot of fun with that, although I particularly regret that my aunt did not get to see the book," he said. "It taught me a lesson about putting things off."
"Death Goes Dutch" is Bell's fifth work of fiction. His other two mystery novels are "All Roads Lead to Murder," which is set in the first century A.D. and features the historical figure Pliny the Younger as his sleuth, and "Kill Her Again," which is set around an archaeological dig in modern-day Italy. He is also the author of a historical novel set in first-century Rome, "Daughter of Lazarus," and a children's novel, "The Case of the Lonely Grave."
Bell's academic emphasis is on the ancient Mediterranean world and ancient Rome in particular. His scholarly work includes the book "Exploring the New Testament World," which reviews the social, political and cultural background against which the New Testament was written, and a number of articles.
In addition to his on-going work as a member of the college's history faculty, Bell has two other novels in progress, following up "All Roads Lead to Murder" and "Kill Her Again."
He also can envision himself writing again about his latest protagonist, Sarah DeGraaf. "I just know at some point there's probably going to be a book where she's looking for her own roots," he said.
"Death Goes Dutch" is being published this spring by Claystone Books, an imprint of the Ingalls Publishing Group Inc., and will be available in paperback for $13.95. There will be a launch party on Thursday, March 16, beginning at 7 p.m. at Schuler Books, located at 2660 28th St. SE in Grand Rapids.