When Missoula writer Neil McMahon wrote the novel "Lone Creek" a handful of years ago, he practiced one of writing's bits of received wisdom.
"I was writing what I know," McMahon said recently. "That character was pretty close to me in a lot of ways."
McMahon wrote one more novel featuring that character, Hugh Davoren, a one-time journalist and boxer turned Montana ranch hand.
Davoren wasn't McMahon, but he was close, a man not quite sure what to do next but committed to finding out.
"Lone Creek," published by Harper Collins, did relatively well, but the second Davoren novel, "Dead Silver," didn't fare as well.
What happened next was a voyage into a landscape and mindscape McMahon knew mostly at arm's length.
"What happened there is that my publisher offered a suggestion in terms of a setting for the next book," the 62-year-old novelist said. "They wanted a bigger book, a bigger scope, a bigger city."
And that is what they got when McMahon delivered "L.A. Mental," which hit bookstands last week.
Los Angeles, of course, is a big city, but it's also central to America's largest dreamscape, the place where anything, real or pretend, might happen.
Give the vast palate presented by Tinseltown, McMahon let his mind run, back to the days when he studied psychology at Stanford, back to the days of resonance theory and cognitive dissonance.
What emerged was an intoxicating blend of psychology, mind control, physics and movies, leavened with the more familiar plot devices of money, sex and power.
"People seem to always be intrigued by big money," McMahon said, noting that as a native of the wrong side of the tracks in Chicago big money was not something he was overly familiar with. "But when I was back at Stanford, I saw what big money did for people. I saw how it could be used, for both good and bad."
"L.A. Mental" walks that fault line. McMahon's central hero is Tom Crandall, a psychologist and member of a fabulously wealthy family that has been both served and scandalized by money.
Crandall and his family find themselves entwined for the worse with Gunnar Kelso, a physicist-turned-filmmaker who is shooting what appears to be a very expensive movie on one of the Crandall's properties but may have something more breathtaking in mind than just movies.
McMahon's novel moves swiftly through a series of startling revelations that pit Crandall against Kelso and the mysterious Cynthia Trask, who has her claws into Crandall's brother Paul and may in some way be responsible for another brother's recent violent and near deadly outburst.
Along the way, Crandall falls for one of the film's lead actresses, who may or may not be under the sinister influence of Kelso.
McMahon is quick to note that the mind control games played by Kelso are a product of his imagination, though his use of both physics' resonance theory and psychology's cognitive dissonance are accurate.
"Beyond that, I am not making any claims that people could actually do what these guys are doing," McMahon said with a laugh. "Although from people I've talked to with military connections, it wouldn't surprise me."
In the end, it won't matter to the reader who'll simply find herself propelled along by McMahon's sure storytelling and elegant writing.
"I had times when I wondered whether I should be spending more time on the science part of it," he said, "but in the end it's better to keep the book moving and not get bogged down in pages of scientific explanation. Too much of that and you won't have a thriller."
"L.A. Mental" is McMahon's 10th novel, but it's his last with Harper Collins. So instead of planning his next novel, he's looking back at some of his older ones - horror novels - with an eye toward re-releasing them in the virtual world of electronic books and print-on-demand.
"My contract is up with Harper and I am really pretty happy to just not be writing a novel for now," he said. "You know, there comes a time when you're just ready to not be in there all the time. I've been doing this solid for years, without taking any time off. It's good to step away for a while."
McMahon knows that he's been fortunate to keep writing novels when plenty of other Missoula writers have seen the demand for their work dry up.
Yes, hard work makes its own luck sometimes, but McMahon knows he's "been in the right places at some of the right times."
That knack has created a satisfying, respected career that could have been more satisfying financially, perhaps, but also might never have gotten off the ground.
"I think about the young people coming up now and you've got to imagine that its really hard to get started," he said. "Publishers want the big book and they're aren't that many people who are going to be writing those books. I definitely think we got to be part of the heyday for Missoula writers. I know I'm lucky."
During that heyday of the '70s and '80s, a writer could get by on a part-time job while getting established. McMahon was a carpenter during those early years, and Missoula was a cheap, easy place to live.
"Guys could have a job where they worked three or four days a week, and you could write the other three," he said. "You could afford to live that way, to write, and we all had a good time. I'm really grateful to have had those opportunities, and I don't know that they're really out there these days. I feel like I came along at a good time."
In a way, McMahon has lived his dream.
"I think if I hadn't had the chance to be a full-time writer, I would have missed something and felt like I didn't do what I'd always wanted to do," he said. "But I got the chance and it's worked out pretty well. I'm excited to see what comes next. Publishing has changed a lot, but there's a market for good stories, so we'll see where we go."
City editor Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.