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He took the plunge and made a splash

Cohasset publisher finds success as Florida mystery writer

The weight of the decision was causing Wayne Barcomb's shoulders to slump. Is there ever a good time to tinker with success? To make change when all you've ever worked for had come to fruition? Back and forth he went, toying with the idea of walking away from his lucrative senior vice president's position with a Boston-based publishing company.

``I was at the height of my career in publishing," Barcomb said of that decisive summer in 1991. ``I had spent over 20 years in the publishing industry and had worked my way up. I was on the board of directors at Wadsworth."

Still, he couldn't escape the itch -- his beautiful house overlooking Cohasset's coastline, and prestigious tennis club memberships notwithstanding. If, at age 59, life was going to come full circle, Barcomb would have to abandon the safe confines of the business end of publishing, and plunge into the far less predictable writing end of the business.

``I was," he acknowledged with understatement, ``taking a bit of a chance."

Today, four books later, there's no question the risk paid off.

With the recent release of ``Undercurrent" to critical acclaim, the former Cohasset resident has established himself among Gulf Coast Florida's strong contingent of mystery writers. Lunches at the famed Liars Club in Sarasota -- founded 50 years ago by writers John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee mystery series) and Mackinlay Kantor (1956 Pulitzer for ``Andersonville") -- can include Barcomb and fellow members Dennis Lehane, Stuart Kaminsky, and Stephen King.

``I literally started writing the very next day after I resigned," he said. ``I used to write all the time as a kid. I would write little things and squirrel them away. As a freshman I won an essay contest. I always loved to write." Barcomb grew up in North Adams and attended the University of Massachusetts.

Out of college, Barcomb enlisted in the Army and was assigned to counterintelligence . Stationed in New York City, he spent two years ``in civilian clothes investigating the backgrounds of people listed as `unpatriotic.' "

When his military stint ended he took his political science degree to Boston, where he was hired as a sales rep for Allyn & Bacon, a college text book company. Over two decades, he climbed to vice president of college and international divisions.

Looking for more autonomy in his work, he started his own publishing company, Kent Publishing, in the mid-'70s. That was absorbed by Wadsworth Inc. in 1978.

He remained with Wadsworth and its parent company, the Thomson Corp. , until 1991, when the urge to write became greater than his sense of comfort.

``I enjoyed my time in publishing and on the South Shore," said Barcomb, who lived in Cohasset for 27 years before joining his wife, Susan, in trading the Gold Coast for the Gulf Coast in 1992.

Barcomb was active in tennis and the theater, acting in more than 30 productions put on by the Cohasset Drama Club. He also wrote theater reviews for local papers and the Boston Herald.

Some of his memories of the region made their way into Barcomb's ``All Are Naked." Released in 2002 through Cohasset-based Hot House Press, the book sold a respectable 2,100 copies. The party that opens the book is held at a house on Gammons Road. The story's protagonist, Peter, and his wife make up Cohasset's highest-profile couple, while Peter's politically motivated father lives in Scituate.

``I drew from my experiences as far as placing the book," said Barcomb, who wrote ``Naked" after moving to Sarasota.

His third book, ``Blood Tide" (Hot House Press, 2004) introduced the character of Sam Wallace, best described as Barcomb's alter ego. Wallace is a former college professor turned private investigator. Like Barcomb, Wallace lives along Florida's Gulf Coast, has a small dog named Henry, worries incessantly that foul play could be around any corner, and frets about people noticing his ``comb-over" hairstyle. Wallace also imitates Barcomb in driving a classic 1969 Mercedes 280 SE convertible.

``There is, I have to admit, a lot of me in Sam," he said. ``You write best about what you know."

``Blood Tide" ties murder in with Florida's notorious environmental enemy, red tide. Tightly written with strong character development, it has sold more than 3,000 copies to date and won the praise of Spenser series writer Robert Parker, who called it ``a compelling story, swiftly told, without a false note."

In ``Undercurrent," which has sales closing in on 3,500 books, Barcomb again introduces Wallace, murder, and environmental themes, this time the endangered sea turtles off nearby Siesta Key. Again, he slips in his former home, having Wallace go back to Boston to take care of ``some unfinished business."

``In my books you'll find the environment a constant underlying theme," he said. ``It comes from being down here on Florida's west coast, where the environment is always a concern."

His latest work, again involving P.I. Wallace, will center on Florida's controversial phosphate industry and the effect those companies have on the land. Under the working title ``Dirty Water," it should be released through Hot House within a year, he said.

``Wayne's books are an entertaining read," said David Replogle, owner of Hot House Press, whose company has a dozen authors under its watch. ``He has an enthusiastic following . . . Wayne has developed strong, continuous characters."

It could conceivably establish a television or movie character, as well. ``I have an agent who is very optimistic that we can do some things with Sam Wallace," said Barcomb.

Later this summer, Barcomb plans to visit the South Shore -- his first trip back in almost three years. Stops will include Boston to see his son, David, a senior vice president for Paine Webber, and Cohasset, to see ``the beautiful harbor and the Cohasset Golf Club. Barcomb has another son, Scott, who is an investment banker in Sarasota, Fla., and a daughter, Melissa, who works for Houghton Mifflin in Annapolis, M d.

``I'm not about to do what Sam did and go get a P.I. license," said the man who went from dutifully producing text to heartily creating it. ``I'm happy just to write about him; not be him."

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