Tourism expert finding new success as crime novelist

Union Leader Correspondent
July 10. 2016 7:50PM
Mark Okrant poses recently in front of the Mountain View Grand hotel in Whitefield, the setting of a crime in a short story that is also part of his novel “Murder at the Grands.” 

WHITEFIELD — For almost 40 years, Mark Okrant has literally written the book on New Hampshire tourism, an experience that in the past decade he has mined to pen multiple crime novels set at historic resorts, including The Balsams, the Omni Mount Washington, Mountain View Grand, and Wentworth by the Sea.

Born and raised in New London, Conn., Okrant, 66, came north in 1979 when he was hired by then Plymouth State College to create the first academic tourism program in New Hampshire. He soon came under the wing of four leading tourism experts: Mildred Beech of the Lakes Region Association; Steve Barba, the general manager of The Balsams; Dick Hamilton, of White Mountain Attractions; and Norm Vandernoot who was with the state’s travel office.

Those individuals represented the core of the NH Travel Council, which earlier this year awarded Okrant the Dick Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award.

Okrant has previously been recognized for his tourism research by governors Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan. He is the 1998 recipient of the Association of American Geographers’ John Rooney Award for excellence in applied tourism research and is a past-president of the international Travel and Tourism Research Association.

Currently professor emeritus and program coordinator for graduate studies in hospitality and tourism management at Plymouth State University, Okrant, who lives in Loudon with his wife Marla, was also the longtime director of the Institute for New Hampshire Studies there.

Since 1990, INHS, according to its website, has maintained the state’s tourism data base and conducted tourism research for numerous clients including the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development.

During a recent interview, Okrant said he became an author out of necessity.

Forced by budget cuts in the late 1980s and early 1990s at Plymouth State to find a cheaper way than multiple road trips to do tourism research with students, Okrant hit upon writing a murder mystery — “Judson’s Island” —about an imaginary place off the coast of Maine. Not only did the book fit the immediate bill it was also used at universities in both the U.S. and Canada.

Okrant next wrote two nonfiction books about the motel industry — “Sleeping Alongside the Road” and “No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise, and Reprise of America’s Motels,” before realizing that he wanted to write a commercial novel and that he wanted it set at the northernmost of New Hampshire’s Grand Hotels — The Balsams, which since then, however, has closed its doors.

After getting the OK from Barba, Okrant spent the next nine years researching and writing the novel which introduces Kary Turnell, a fedora-wearing, middle-aged criminology professor at PSU and former crime reporter who just happens to be good friends with the fictional GM at The Balsams. Turnell, Okrant said, had a successful authorial debut but has since hit some serious writer’s block. He is married and faithful and while an alcoholic, is sober.

Well received, “A Last Resort,” begat a short story “Murder with a View” featuring Turnell that was set at the Mountain View Grand in Whitefield and that was later combined with another novel — “I Knew You When,” which takes places at the Omni Mount Washington in Bretton Woods — as the book “Murder at the Grands.”

Following a geographical departure to Canada in his next novel, “An Icy Reception,” Okrant brought Turnell back to New Hampshire in April 2015 with the release of “Whacked,” which finds him at Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle. That book and several of its predecessors were released by Concord-based Plaidswede Publishing and are available at retailers and online, both in paperback and in digital format.

Okrant has already written and is awaiting the releases of “Another Paradise Lost” and “Death by Lobster.” The novels are set in Rinco, Puerto Rico and Ogunquit, Maine, respectively, with the former to be published in January 2017 and the latter 10 months thereafter.

Although he declined to get into specifics, Okrant smiled and said that being a crime novelist is “somewhat profitable.” He dreams of doing a TV show about New Hampshire that focuses on tourism and of being “widely enough read that I would be recognized on the street,” promising that if he was so recognized, “I would treat that person extremely well.”

Okrant thanked his wife of nearly 45 years for being his “chief editor” and extended gratitude to the rest of his editing team: the couple’s daughters Robyn and Elisabeth and Mary Desfosses of Durham.

In addition to Barba, who made “A Last Resort” possible, Okrant acknowledged the role of Dennis Joos in his nascent writing career.

When he had doubts about “A Last Resort,” Joos, who was a co-editor of the Colebrook News and Sentinel, encouraged him and wrote an article about the novel. But unlike “A Last Resort,” which has a surprise, upbeat ending that Okrant asked not be revealed, Joos’ life ended tragically.

On Aug. 19, 1997, Joos, along with State Troopers Scott Phillips and Les Lord and district court judge Vickie Bunnell were shot and killed by Carl Drega, a resident of nearby Columbia who’d had a long-running dispute with authorities.


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