Former five-term congressman Robert J. Mrazek ’67, now an award-winning author, released his 12th novel this week. The thriller, titled “The Dark Circle,” is the second in a series that details the adventures of former army officer Jake Cantrell and his beloved sidekick, Bug, a wolfhound he rescued while serving in Afghanistan.
The novel begins with Cantrell working as a campus security officer at the fictional St. Andrews College, but he resigns when complaints arise after he uses force to break up a fight between two drug-crazed students. Jake doesn’t stay unemployed for long, though; Lauren Kennsiton, the editor of the “Groton Journal,” offers him $200 a day to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a gifted student musician.
As Cantrell travels around Upstate New York, he attempts to untangle a web of issues related to opioids, sex trafficking and corruption. Cantrell makes more than a few enemies as his investigation catches the attention of powerful New Yorkers.
Loosely set in Groton, “The Dark Circle” weaves together fictional and factual details about Upstate New York.
“Groton is really Ithaca. St. Andrews school is a smaller version of Cornell,” Mrazek explained.
Readers will notice numerous local references in the novel, from landmarks like Ithaca’s Fall Creek and Rochester’s Kodak Tower, to Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and Cornell’s annual Slope Day music festival which is recast as the St. Andrews Slope Day festival in the novel.
As a 1967 Cornell alum and someone that currently splits his time between Ithaca and Maine, Mrazek knows the area well and has watched it evolve over the decades.
“The drugstores, hardware store, the courthouse, the Woolworth’s five and dime: they’re all gone. They’re empty. The big engine in Upstate New York was the railroads. The railroads thrived up here for many years, and when the railroads left, the villages died,” Mrazek explained.
“The tragedy of a waning set of small communities serves as an undercurrent to the novel, and a contrast to the physical beauty of the Finger Lakes,” Mrazek explained.
According to Mrazek, one of the more difficult aspects of writing this novel was crafting a “worthy” villain.
“Hopefully the reader is thrilled with what happens to him at the end after all of the tragedy that he causes,” Mrazek said.
Reflecting on his switch from politics to writing, Mrazek explained that his time as a politician was simply a detour from his true passion.
“I ended up taking a 30-year detour, if you will, from what I wanted to do in life. But when I left Congress, I thought, ‘Okay, you wanted to be a writer. Let’s see if you can be a writer,’” Mrazek said.
Despite it being his true calling, the start to Mrazek’s writing career was far from smooth. His first two books — one of which took two and a half years to write — went unpublished, and his savings were running out.
Mrazek was having doubts about whether he could be successful as an author. But this all changed when he took his then high school aged daughter to visit Cornell’s campus.
“[During this visit,] I woke up at two in the morning with the whole idea for a civil war novel. And I dictated into my little linear, for two hours, what the book was going to be. And that one won the Michael Shaara prize for the civil war novel of the year and became a bestseller. And I thought, ‘Okay, [I] can do it,’” Mrazek recounted.
As a congressman, Mrazek was used to meeting with hundreds of people in a single day. Now, his daily work routine mainly consists of just him and his laptop.
“I love the writing life as much as I ever enjoyed public life, but they’re totally different,” Mrazek said.
“Couch time” is one of his favorite writing methods, when he’s not working in his writing “sanctuary,” a cozy sunlit room that conjures up images of Thoreau at Walden.
“My wife will come down and see me stretched out on the couch in the library [and] say, ‘What are you doing? I thought you were writing.’ I [reply], ‘I am,’” he said.
Mrazek doesn’t shy away from difficult topics in this novel and there are a few grisly scenes. But his writing also incorporates some positive themes, including courage and love, as well as the occasional dash of humor.
“If I didn’t have the creative outlet to escape into my imagination every day with the characters I’m writing about, whether they are real or not, I would be a very depressed person about where we are in this world,” Mrazek said. “I write [books] for my own pleasure in the hope they will give other people pleasure.”
Mrazek also said he strives to write books that include strong female characters.
“I have two young granddaughters, eight and six, who I hope someday will read my books and feel grandpa did a good job,” Mrazek said.
Julia Nagel is a reporter from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times. This piece was originally published in the Ithaca Times.