An old man regales his grandchildren with tall tales from his days working on the railroad, before the influx of moneyed newcomers. A group of Realtors at an art show criticize the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance. An overworked young newspaper editor struggles to manage her office. Environmentalists sit around a table in the Railway District discussing how to rid the Flathead Valley of unsightly billboards. A thug out on parole from Deer Lodge is busted in his trailer for filming adult movies of underage girls.
While many of these scenes may have occurred in Whitefish, they all take place in the anonymously written Web site, TheWhitefishNovel.com, an ongoing and unfinished online murder mystery that has been updated regularly for more than six months.
The author has taken steps to conceal his or her identity. The Web site was registered through “Domains by Proxy,” of Scottsdale, Ariz., a service that allows the customer to register their domains without revealing any personal information. The domain itself was created on Nov. 8 of last year.
The novel’s plot follows the investigation into the murder of Stanley O’Malley in his massive lakeshore mansion. While the detectives working on the case figure prominently in the story, many other characters and plot lines meander and collide in the novel’s (currently) 18 chapters, in much the same way that the various journalists, ski bums, socialites, construction workers and railroaders do in a small resort town like Whitefish.
In the novel, O’Malley is described as a wealthy businessman who has bought up large portions of the ski resort, the airport and a chain of restaurants. The character is clearly modeled after Bill Foley, the chief executive officer of Fidelity Personal Finance, primary shareholder of Winter Sports Inc., and a common target of criticism by those railing against Whitefish’s changing character.
Many of the characters and events that serve as the backdrop for the novel are thinly veiled depictions of real local people and events. But none of these characters, many of whom represent the various components of Whitefish’s unique social hierarchy, are treated with derision or hostility by the novel’s author – or authors. The perspective of a newly arrived couple trying to assess Whitefish’s employment options are treated with the same depth as the old timer sitting on prime real estate who doesn’t want to sell.
The lack of a political agenda in the novel is part of what makes the story so interesting and unpredictable. Almost none of the characters are one-dimensional, or easily written off, which adds to the novel’s suspense as it remains unclear, for example, how the ski-joring and randonee racer’s plotline will eventually intersect with the murder.
Whoever the writer is, their knowledge of Whitefish is nearly encyclopedic, with descriptions of everything from the topography of the difficult ski runs at Big Mountain to the common sights and rituals of downtown Whitefish during the Winter Carnival. The anonymous author is also obviously paying close attention to local current events, with the two chapters added last week including a reference to the recent anti-sprawl group that has vandalized developments in Columbia Falls and Bigfork.
The accoutrements of the wealthy are keenly observed in the novel, clear in the description of O’Malley’s mansion, from the cynical perspective of the investigating detective, on the night of the murder: “The living room, or whatever it was that an architect would call it, was filled with the usual Cowboy-chic artwork – just rustic enough to make the owner feel like he’d finished a hard day mending fences, but expensive enough to warrant an ooh or aah from visitors drooling with envy.”
It’s unclear how much of an impact, if any, the novel has had on Whitefish residents. As of last week, even those who work in Whitefish’s nascent literary scene were unaware of its existence. The owners of Bookworks and Voyageur Booksellers hadn’t heard of it.
Ryan Friel, a city councilman and editor of the arts journal, the Whitefish Review, had not caught wind of the novel through his work with the city government, or his contacts with local writers. While he spent some time reading the opening chapters after being directed to the Web site by a reporter, he did not recognize the prose style as resembling that of any of the writers submitting to the Whitefish Review.
“It’s really funny that we’ve got a ghost writer in Whitefish,” Friel said. “I would love for that person to submit a story to the Whitefish Review.”
Brian Schott, also an editor at the Whitefish Review, agreed.
“This kind of creativity is a great way to get out any angst over growth issues in Whitefish,” Schott said. “Sure beats graffiti.”
As for how many chapters remain in TheWhitefishNovel.com, that answer, like the identity of the author, remains unknown.
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