Men of Letters author Mark Flexter ’79 places flowers on a grave at Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville.
When Alexander Greyfell came to Crawfordsville, Indiana, 13 August 1897 to apply for the position of Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Wabash College, he had no interest in the job.
However, gaining this post would be the last piece of his elaborate and dangerous plan weeks in the making.
from Men of Letters, by Mark Flexter ’79
Mark Flexter’s novel Men of Letters is set at Wabash College in 1897, but he may have done his best work in Oak Hill cemetery.
“It’s probably the moment I’m proudest of,” says Flexter of the on-the-grounds research he did at Oak Hill for a book whose attention to historical and geographical detail is obvious from the opening page.
That attention is no surprise: Flexter is a day trader of stocks. His livelihood depends on “knowing more about the companies I’m investing in than anyone else.” But Flexter’s interest in writing and research was sparked when he was a psychology major at Wabash, years before he entered the risky business of stocks, even years before he earned his law degree at Indiana University.
“The idea to write an action-adventure novel came up when I was a student, but it wasn’t going to have anything to do with Wabash,” says Flexter. who was drawn to the 1890s because “the technology, particularly the technology of weaponry, was so amazing then, and in ways most people today don’t realize.
“They had battery-operated electric motors that were completely silent, the Gatling gun set a record—8,000 rounds per minute in 1896.”
Wabash squeezed its way into the picture soon after Flexter’s graduation. He was passing out samples of chewing tobacco at the Indiana Veterans Home in Lafayette and met a man whose grandfather had shoveled coal on campus in the 1890s. When Flexter evinced an interest, the man gave him his grandfather’s diaries
to read. Flexter took copious notes but didn’t see how Wabash could ever fit into an action novel.
During the next two decades, researching the planned 1890s novel became an ongoing hobby. In 1997 he decided it was time to get serious about writing a book, and by 2005 he had written his novel, sans Wabash, and set it aside.
“Then I wondered if I could take these rough-and-tumble fictional characters and put them in Crawfordsville with the real people who lived here in 1897,” Flexter recalls. “I thought the juxtaposition of these mercenaries with the sleepy Wabash campus would be interesting.”
And so Men of Letters was conceived. Flexter pored over documents in the College archives and Crawfordsville Public Library. He has an unusual capacity for retaining information. He walked the streets of the city to make sure every building he described, every path his characters took, was accurate to the most minute detail. Even the arrival and departure times of the trains are historically correct.
His research introduced him to the Wabash of the 1890s.
“The most amazing person I met was Professor John Lyle Campbell,” Flexter says. “He was a rock star: a cross between Stephen Hawking and Tom Cruise. He set up the first electric lighting in town in 1880—lit up Yandes Library and mesmerized Crawfordsville. And just three months after Edison had invented the light bulb!
“I got to the point I was talking to these people.”
Which brings us to that “proudest moment” at Oak Hill.
Flexter first visited the cemetery on the far north side of Crawfordsville to find the names of Wabash faculty members’ wives who appear in the book.
“I couldn’t find their first names in any records I’d looked at—they were always Mrs. Atlas Hadley or Mrs. John Lyle Campbell. They deserved to be remembered by their first names.”
Later he returned to Oak Hill to plan the steps of an assassin he created: John Prester, a man who performs a chilling rite before every murder he commits.
“He places flowers at the grave site of a woman whose tombstone is inscribed solely with information about that woman,” Flexter explains. No “wife of” or “daughter of” references allowed.
To write the scene, Flexter walked in to Oak Hill from its 1890s entrance, as Prester would have, and searched for two hours without finding such a stone.
“I was about ready to give up when I came to a section and looked up to see one woman’s grave—and then two more right behind it.”
Their names are brought into the 21st century in Men of Letters:
Just as Prester was about to lose hope, he came upon the gravestone of Sylvia
Ann Elston: “Born Mar. 23, 1825. Died May 24, 1848. Aged 23 Years.” Prester bent down to place the flowers on Sylvia’s grave when he noticed the neighboring stone to the left belonged to another woman: Maria Eveline Elston: “Born Dec. 22, 1805. Died July 29, 1874.” Prester was trying to decide between the two Elston graves when he glanced at the tombstone in the row immediately behind them, just to the left of Maria’s. The stone, marking the grave of yet another woman, Clarissa Millen: “Born Oct. 21, 1796. Died Feb.14, 1853. Aged 56 Years.
Prester faces the dilemma. His ritual demands he choose one grave, yet he surmises from the inscriptions that each woman deserves attention and remembrance. Sylvia had died the youngest; Maria was Sylvia’s mother and lived with her loss for 26 years; Clarissa died on Valentine’s Day.
In an unexpected show of sympathy from a character who shows little regard for others elsewhere in the book, Prester divides his bouquet and leaves flowers at the headstones of all three women.
“Sometimes Prester and I think alike,” Flexter explains. “As a day trader, I’m as superstitious as anyone. I have my own rituals. Sometimes they get interrupted and you just have to throw caution to the wind. I think that’s what happens to Prester. He has an epiphany—he turns from superstition and says, ‘Hell, I’m going to do the right thing.”
Flexter’s wife, Angie, says Flexter had his own epiphany writing that section of the book.
“That sort of character development is the most impressive thing about the book—the characters become real,” she says. “Mark realized that this character is not a set of finite facts, he’s a person.”
When it comes time to take a photograph for this article, Flexter suggests we return to Oak Hill. It has been eight months since Men of Letters was published by Amazon. The response—particularly from the Wabash community whose history he documented—has been disappointing. His feelings for the project vacillate between regret and anger. He wants to put it behind him.
Flexter arrives on a brisk fall morning wearing a sport coat and carrying flowers.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” he says as we walk to the graves of Maria and Sylvia Elston and Clarissa Millen. Flexter patiently poses, holding the flowers as I photograph him from several different angles. I take the last shot and am walking away when I notice the writer dividing up the flowers, laying a bouquet at each stone, and pausing for moment at each.
“I was trying to accomplish three things with the book,” Flexter reflects. “I wanted to tell an exciting story. I wanted that story to draw people into the history of Wabash and Montgomery County. I wanted to create bad-ass characters, but I wanted the reader to see them as human beings—you know, think, I wouldn’t mind having a beer with that guy.
“But if nothing else comes of this, the effort was worth it, if just to put flowers on those three graves. Probably the first time someone had put flowers on those graves in 100 years. That was worth the whole damned thing. I’ve made a connection—they’ve come to seem like surrogate family to me.
“I’ll be back to do it again.”