The write stuff: retired U professor living his dream

Working under the pseudonym M.D. Lake, retired professor of Scandinavian literature Allen Simpson has been hard at work over the past decade, writing mystery novels loosely based on the University and some of its employees.

Simpson published 10 mystery novels during the 1990s, all implicitly involving the University, along with heroine Peggy O’Neill.

Simpson said he started studying Scandinavian literature after migrating to Minnesota from California on the heels of a beautiful, young Norwegian girl.

Hoping to impress her, he began learning the names of Norwegian authors so she would grow fond of him.

Although they never fell in love, Simpson did fall in love with Minnesota and Scandinavian literature – two loves that remain with him today.

“I fell in love with the place the first year I was here,” Simpson said. “I’m still in love with the place.”

Simpson earned his bachelor’s degree in Scandinavian literature from the University, returned to California to earn his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley, and then returned to Minnesota permanently.

“California is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” Simpson said. “Just like Minnesota is a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit.”

Simpson taught Scandinavian literature at the University for 27 years before retiring early to pursue the career he had wanted all along – writing.

“I always wanted to be a writer,” Simpson said. “I didn’t have the guts to just strike out and become a writer. I didn’t have the do or die, ‘I am going to starve to death or make it’ (attitude). It’s too bad – sometimes I wish I had.”

Without the guts to become a professional writer, Simpson became a professor.

But it was the University that inspired him to turn his hobby of reading mystery novels into a career of writing them.

At 59, the University offered him the option of early retirement, a year’s pay and full health benefits until 65.

Although he knew little about writing a novel, he chose to write what he did know about: being a professor.

“Write about what you know,” Simpson said. “When you’ve taught at the University as long as I have, you are not fit for real life. You need to do research on how to cross the street.”

With the University as the location, Simpson said, the crime stories came naturally.

“Something happened at the University that made me want to kill some guy, a faculty member, and I realized I wouldn’t get away with it, so I thought I better do it in fiction. So I went out to write a mystery where this guy gets what is coming.”

Simpson’s mystery series features female police officer O’Neill, who investigates murders. Like many of the characters, O’Neill is based on an actual campus cop named Regan Metcalf, who is now retired.

To research the role of O’Neill, Simpson rode along with Metcalf on her night shift.

Metcalf, however, was one of the only people who knew Simpson was loosely basing characters on them.

“The funny thing is, nobody ever recognizes themselves,” Simpson said. “In a couple of them, I ran some personal errands.”

At his editor’s request, Simpson took on a pen name to increase sales.

“Women don’t want to read a novel in the first-person female written by a man,” Simpson said.

The pseudonym M.D. Lake came to Simpson when he was walking on the shores of Medicine Lake and is based on the lake’s name.

These days, Simpson is working on something new: a nonmystery novel.

“It’s time for me to write a novel that doesn’t have a corpse in it,” he said.

His latest novel, with the working title of either “Bad Poets” or “Born Survivors,” was inspired by a Salmon Rushdie quote.

“The novel is about bad poets that are born survivors,” Simpson said.

Although Simpson has been working on his newest work for almost three years, he said he is nearing the end.

In addition to his novels, Simpson has also published short stories in an annual mystery anthology called “Malice Domestic.” His most recent work appears in volume 10.