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Racing against time: The first COVID mystery

’Novel Coronavirus’ character list

Kevin Dahlmeyer, 43, a grocery clerk in Sonoma.

Martha Pappas, mid-20s, Kevin's neighbor. She is a server at a local winery who goes to work feeling ill as the COVID-19 epidemic gets started.

Dr. Emily Pappas, Martha’s older sister and a doctor at a local hospital treating COVID-19 patients. She takes care of Kevin when he gets sick.

Chief Sean Bonner, the local chief of police who refuses to investigate Kevin when Martha starts to suspect he killed his father with COVID-19.

A lot of people said they’d write a book when the COVID lockdown started, back around mid-March. Kyle Roesler did.

The San Diego-based writer began to muse about the possibility of committing a murder by COVID-19, intentionally infecting someone with the coronavirus. Without much else to do – Roesler was in a shutdown phase like the rest of California at the time – he turned to producing the book, “Novel Coronavirus,” set it the Northern California town of Sonoma.

“Its combination of being a small historic town, in a well-known wine region and close to San Francisco, just fit my story perfectly,” said the somewhat mysterious if prolific writer – part two of a Polynesian adventure series, “A Moai Walks into a Tiki Bar,” was published only a few weeks ago, on June 1. “Novel Coronavirus” hit the Amazon shelves on July 28.

The story concerns a protagonist “on the spectrum” who lives with his father, an attractive neighbor across the street, and her sister the town doctor. Coronavirus goes around the tight group, in a particularly viscious form, sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes not.

But for anyone who knows Sonoma, the Sonoma in the book bears only superficial resemblance to the town. There is a Plaza, yes, and a hospital, and a police department. But the book gives the town a Panera, an unfamiliar topography, watering holes in quiet neighborhoods, and easy access to anywhere – even Rohnert Park – by bus service.

Roesler, now 53, and his wife visited Sonoma when they lived in San Jose, in about 2015 while he was working as an aerospace engineer for Lockheed Martin. They visited the Plaza, the Mission, and went wine-tasting – at Roessler Winery, of course (which appears as Roessel in the novel).

Like his six other books, “Novel Coronavirus” is self-published, available on Amazon or wherever digital books are sold. The cost is $4.88 for a Kindle download, or $9.88 for a publish-on-demand paperback.

Whether or not Roesler stands to make substantial royalties from the book (his earlier works are on sale priced at a much lower cost), he is donating 25 percent of royalties to the organization Feeding America, and another 25 percent to the World Health Organization – or all of his royalties, evenly split between the two, if the purchase is made before Aug. 31.

But for writers like Roesler and tens of thousands of others who self-publish their mysteries, science fiction, fantasies, travel, histories and how-tos on Amazon, making a profit may not be the point. It’s just getting published, having a book in hand and another on the e-reader. The self-publish market is substantial, and growing: between 2017 and 2018 it leaped 40 percent to 1.68 million titles in 2018, with Amazon having the most significant market share, with 1.4 million self-published print titles in that year.

Smashwords, aside from Amazon the country’s largest publisher of e-books, self-reported in 2019 that it published more than half a million titles from over 142,000 independent authors, numbers that look pretty big from any perspective.

Even self-publishing, then, is highly competitive. Knowing he had little time to get a COVID murder mystery-slash-thriller on the market, Roesler pushed himself – 10,000 words a day (“to keep it moving,” he said), plus pre-planning, copy editing, the review of a few “beta readers” and further editing… then publishing it to Amazon’s “CreateSpace” platform, itself a many-staged process.

“I was putting some pressure on myself to try to get it down quickly in case somebody else had a similar idea,” said Roesler. All told it took just seven weeks, from inception to availability. And it’s available now, at amazon.com/gp/product/B08CZWBSMH.

So far, reviews are favorable, but a significant share of complaints came from comments on his Facebook page (Kyle G. Roesler, Novelist) objecting to his chosen benefactors, Feeding America and the World Health Organization. “It seems to please a few people and piss off a lot more,” he said. “It’s kind of a political football right now.”

The benefactors of the sales will go to Feeding America and the World Health Organization, two organizations that are in the news. “It kind of helped people get an idea of what to expect should they read the novel, as far as my point of view is concerned.”

For Roesler, working from imposed isolation at home, with a self-imposed deadline, self-publishing was the way to go. “The best part of self-publishing for me is the fact that I have complete control over the final product” – not only telling the story, but designing the book and its cover and the marketing. “I kind of liked that control over everything that ended up in front of the reader.”

If it pays off, it pays off in ways other than royalties. “My profits on the other books are more or less non-existent – over the 20 years that I was talking about (as a self-published writer) I made in the neighborhood of $500.”

Still, he plugs away. He’s working on some ideas now that he hopes will get him more attention, and bring his back-catalog some of the attention it’s been missing so far.

If it doesn’t, he may have some ideas about how to deal with critics.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

’Novel Coronavirus’ character list

Kevin Dahlmeyer, 43, a grocery clerk in Sonoma.

Martha Pappas, mid-20s, Kevin's neighbor. She is a server at a local winery who goes to work feeling ill as the COVID-19 epidemic gets started.

Dr. Emily Pappas, Martha’s older sister and a doctor at a local hospital treating COVID-19 patients. She takes care of Kevin when he gets sick.

Chief Sean Bonner, the local chief of police who refuses to investigate Kevin when Martha starts to suspect he killed his father with COVID-19.

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