Writing the “Near” Alternate History Mystery / John Hegenberger


The majority of what we call “historical mystery” takes place during or before WWII. It used to be that the term “antique” could only be applied to things over 100 years old. But now it frequently includes items from as recent as the 1960s. Blame it on the increasing pace of today’s electronic life, but there is now a growing interest in thrillers that take place less than fifty years ago- especially if they involve a fascinating setting, theme, or character.

The Stan Wade, LA PI series, including my novel, STARFALL, is an example of a Near Alternate History Mystery.

STARFALL is an adventure story of a Los Angeles private eye who gets hooked up with several well-known personalities of the time. The idea is to take the reader back to a specific time and place, so they can vicariously experience the fun and mystery of another, not-too-distant world.

For example, Stan’s office is in a cramped little room at the back of the Brown Derby restaurant, which lets him and the reader encounter several famous Hollywood stars and other notables of the day. The boat where he lives is moored out where they’re dredging what will one day be the glamorous Marina del Rey. And his biggest client is a movie producer, whose initials are W.D. and who is secretly connected to the FBI.

Stan is hired to figure out who murdered the 8th candidate for what today we know as the Mercury 7 astronauts.

You would think that in 1959 L.A. everything was calm and quaint on the outside, but underneath we all had fall-out shelters and knew the world could end it any moment.

Where did you get the idea for STARFALL?

I came to the idea by thinking about all the great television shows that originally aired when I was a kid. What would happen, I wondered, if the characters of these programs had to team up and deal with the real historical events of the time? In other words, what if someone like Mike Hammer were to visit 77 Sunset Strip in order to work with Sky King or Joe Friday to help stop the commies or organized crime in L.A.

What is the setting of this series of books?

Stan and his associates live in the Los Angeles of 1959. I fell in love with the year 1959. It seems to me that the majority of great private investigators worked out of Los Angeles at one era or another, and I want to put the reader in a setting that’s full of wonder and historical significance.

Historical fact or alternate history fiction?

The beauty of the Historical Alternate History Mystery is that practically every celebrity in Los Angeles 1959 becomes part of the Stan Wade saga. Bobby Darin, Lloyd Bridges, John Ford, Mickey Cohen, Jack Benny, George Reeves, John Wayne, Ross MacDonald, Noel Coward, John Steinbeck, Philip K. Dick, and the Kingston Trio. As well as significant places like Pacific Ocean Park, Marineland, the Hollywood Playhouse, all gone… but not forgotten.

1959 was an important point in time when:

  • We still used the Univac to predict election outcomes.
  • The first color TV programs were broadcasted.
  • First use of those beeping hospital vital signs monitors.
  • Secret Soviet missile bases in Germany pointed at the UK.
  • Alaska and Hawaii become states.

At the back of each book in the series I’ve added “The Fact Behind the Fiction” which details the truth and gives deeper insight into the hidden underpinnings of our world today that began back in 1959.

Does your series have a support team?

One of Stan’s friends is what we today would call a “geek.” Norman “Weirdo” Weirick has a knack for inventing proto-types of the devices we find common today. He has successfully cobbled together a car phone, fax machine and several other tools like a parabolic microphone which were only just beginning to be thought of in 1959. Norman is also a big fan of science fiction which is why writers like Philip K Dick and Rod Serling show up in some of the stories.

Do you change the world?  Does the world change your characters?

Interesting question. I would say that in all cases the world changes them. These are tales of discovery, sometimes external but most times internal. However, in many cases the characters are not aware that they have changed the world. For instance back in 1959, Stan Wade rescues a little boy who has fallen into a dangerous situation. Later he learns the boy’s name is George Bush, which means nothing to him at the time, but everything to the reader today.

Can you describe your interest in these historical periods versus contemporary times?

I’ve lived through a lot, so why not share a little? I try and put as much of my own past into the historical fiction that I share with readers. I love fiction when it blends with history. I think the sub-genre is called “Secret Histories.” A good example is Nicholas Meyer’s “The Seven Percent Solution,” where Sherlock Holmes meets Freud. John Jakes wrote “The Bastard” series that placed his characters in critical historical points from the pre-revolutionary war to the 1930s, loaded with famous Americans. The “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” used to run on TV and the main characters met John Ford, Mata Hari and Lawrence of Arabia. We don’t know everything about the past, so the door is slightly open for fun “what-if” adventures.

If you wrote like that with all the fantastic things happening to a character in today’s setting, it would seem flat-out impossible. But by placing the story back in a historical period, readers can suspend their disbelief as I have my private eye character, Stan Wade, meet Walt Disney, George Reeves, Mickey Cohan, Johnny Mercer and Bobby Darin, all in the same week.

Are there other books in the series?

You bet! During one of the novels in the series, STARFALL, Stan has to figure out who murdered the 8th candidate for what today we know as the Mercury 7 astronauts. In another of the novels, a TV actor vanishes into the witness protection program, while the world still thinks he’s committed suicide.

Yes, Stan also appears in:


In September 1959, someone is out for revenge against a young L.A. PI who has to travel outside the country and his own comfort zone to discover the secret life of Ian Fleming and stop a nuclear threat to Europe that remained classified until 2012.


In December 1959, a hard-luck PI risks life and livelihood in search of a lost Hammett manuscript, where Sam Spade meets the Continental Op, and confronts a frustrated Hitchcock in Hollywood, a young Jack Ruby in Dallas, and a Neo-Nippon threat in America’s new 50th state.


In June 1959, America’s TV superhero took a bullet to the head in an apparent suicide. But was it? And is he really dead? A Hollywood PI comes to grips with his ideals and a host of Mob and Soviet intrigue.

The latest book in the series is STORMFALL

In October 1959, a young, hard-luck PI is lost in America, determined to untangle a series of grisly murders spreading like a disease from the set of The Alamo.  Fighting for his life from a dry desert storm, to a mind-bending fog in San Francisco, and a snow-blinding mountain top outside Hollywood, Stan Wade gropes his way through drug-induced, false trails to outwit an aggressive, obsessive mass killer.

You can find a link to all my books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and on my website at johnhegenberger.com

Award-winning author, John Hegenberger has produced more than a dozen books since mid-2015, including several popular series: Stan Wade LAPI in 1959, Eliot Cross Columbus-based PI in 1988, and Ace Hart, western gambler in Arizona in 1877.  He’s the father of three, tennis enthusiast, collector of silent films, hiker, Francophile, B.A. Comparative Lit., ex-Navy, ex-marketing exec, happily married for 47 years and counting.  Active member of SFWA, PWA, SinC and ITW. His novel SPYFALL won a 2016 award at Killer Nashville. His latest book is TRIPLEYE, hardboiled science fiction about the first PI agency on Mars.

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Thanks to Tom Wood, Arthur Jackson, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog.

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