Tom Bernstein has worn many labels since he moved to the Flathead in the 1970s: curious wanderer, musician in a popular local band, finish carpenter, father, and student. And with the release of his first published novel last year, he’s added author to the list.
“I started writing when I was about 10; I started out to be a writer,” Bernstein said. “But then life got in the way.”
Now, Bernstein is halfway through finishing the second novel in what will eventually be a three-part series of crime books, all set in the Flathead Valley. The first, “A Rumor of Justice,” has received positive reviews, Bernstein said, not only on Amazon, where he self-published the novel as an ebook, but also from readers who have contacted him after finishing the book.
One reader, based in Western Australia, enjoyed the story so much they reached out via Facebook, he said.
The second book in the Rumor series will be “A Rumor of Guilt,” which should be out in the fall, he said, followed up with “A Rumor of Redemption.” While Bernstein said he has the whole series mapped out, he still has to eke out space in his life for his characters.
“I work full-time, so it’s hard for me to find the time to write,” he said.
The first novel in the series follows protagonist Eli March who faces the challenge of proving his innocence after being falsely accused of a crime and suffering police brutality.
Set in the Flathead, Bernstein works in the many facets of living in a small, tight-knit community, from the benefits of knowing your neighbor to the harsh realities of living on the wrong end of the rumor mill.
Many of the characters are Bernstein’s creations, though some real valley residents, such as musician Andre Floyd and Jennifer Young of Kalispell Parks and Recreation, made it to the pages.
Bernstein’s friendship with Dave Kauffman, who recently retired after decades of working in law enforcement, helped initiate the first novel, and the author’s interactions and connections with other valley residents helped build a realistic foundation for the story.
The novel’s attention to local detail has even caused readers to tell Bernstein they remember March’s case in newspapers, despite it being fiction.
“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me here and say, ‘I read your book, and I’m trying to remember when this happened, I remember reading something in the newspaper,’” Bernstein said.
Bernstein has had plenty of time to get to know the valley he writes about. He moved to the Flathead in the late 1970s, after trying Colorado on for size for a couple of years. He left his native Tennessee after a divorce, though his connections to the Memphis area and Colorado remain tight.
Driving into the Flathead from the east, Bernstein said he fell in love with the land.
“I was just so blown away. I spent that whole first summer just hiking in Glacier Park,” he said.
Before settling into his eventual career as a finish carpenter, Bernstein supported himself for a couple years playing guitar, fiddle, and keyboards in Avalanche Rose, a Whitefish band popular in the late 70s and early 80s, where he could flex his songwriting muscles.
The transition from carpenter to author will likely lead him to retirement, Bernstein said. He’s worked in the construction industry for 46 years, and at 65, hopes to retire in the next five years.
His writing will be an investment in his retirement, Bernstein said. The first novel did well, and sales tripled last September, which Bernstein attributes to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and the role police brutality plays in his book.
The next novel in the series, “A Rumor of Guilt,” will look at law enforcement from the other perspective, he said.
“In this first book you have this really rotten cop, and now, where I’m going with this next one, you’ve got a cop who’s a really good person,” Berstein said. “He does something that any one of us would do, but because he’s a policeman he’s held to a higher standard.”
Bernstein credits his children, his significant other Lillian Dooris, and Carol Buchanan, who teaches a class on self-publishing at Flathead Valley Community College, for his ability to publish his book.
“I did everything,” Bernstein said. “I have complete control of it and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. So I apologize for any typos.”
“A Rumor of Justice” can be found at Bookworks in Whitefish and The Bookshelf in Kalispell, as well as on Amazon.com.