LAS VEGAS – Stephen Grogan may write fiction, but some things in his books are for real, including $30,000 in prize money that's been up for grabs.
His first novel, “Vegas Die,” is a mystery set in Sin City, but the last thing Grogan wants is to keep you on the edge of your seat. Forget pouring yourself a cup of tea and snuggling down with a blanket; this is not a typical reading experience.
He wants you to become a “questor,” a reader who hits the streets to follow clues hidden in his “quest mystery.”
With 2008's “Vegas Die,” he hid a dagger somewhere in the city. Whoever found it could win $25,000.
He followed that up with a 2009 cooking mystery, “Captain Cooked,” which invited sleuthing readers to find a club studded with shark's teeth to win $5,000. That novel was set in Hawaii -- a grand idea for a business trip to write it, no? Not to mention a vacation to follow the clues.
Although both contests are over -- and no one won -- Grogan gets letters every week asking about the whereabouts of the hidden treasures. Welcome to the world of interactive literature, a genre Grogan pioneered to boost book sales and enourage fans to read between the lines.
"I wanted to try and figure out a plot where I could garner interest in it more than just reading a book," Grogan told the Los Angeles Times. "So I came up with the concept of having a treasure hunt."
He moved to Vegas a few years ago for a management job at the Las Vegas Arts Commission -- as he would call it, a day job. He realized Las Vegas was a great setting for a book about a mobster's slaying and a quest mystery. Here’s how it goes:
A mobster is killed with a dagger, and the No. 1 suspect is a former Las Vegas mayor. Grogan adds subtle clues within phrases, symbols and numbers to help readers find the weapon.
He didn’t have the $25,000 prize money he wanted to offer, however, so he took out a line of credit. He hoped questors wouldn’t find the dagger within the first week of the book's release, because the money hadn't come through yet.
Grogan allowed readers to contact him via email anytime they had an idea where the dagger could be. He answered with a simple yes or no.
After three years, the dagger had not been found, so Grogan revealed its location: the Clark County Public Library. The dagger was actually an image on a bookmark, slipped into the pages of an art book.
Grogan says one thing he learned about writing an interactive book was that he needed to use social media to reach a wider audience. He had at least 10,000 readers and 2,500 questors, but he wanted more.
Mike Cowling, 42, a questor who came closest to guessing the dagger's location, read "Vegas Die" six times over a year and a half.
"The book held so many possible clues it was very hard finding a starting place," Cowling told The Times. As it happened, Cowling drove past the dagger’s hiding spot every day on his way to work. The library is only five minutes from his home.
Cowling calls the idea and the hiding place brilliant. "The real treasure is not the money; it's the thrill of the hunt and the fun of looking," he said. "If you look at it this way, you will never be upset with the solution."
Grogan says his satisfaction comes from educating readers and giving them something more than a book. Then there's the profit -- even if he'd had to pay out the $30,000, he says, he'd be in the black.
His latest novel is “Bin Laden's Revenge” -- not a quest mystery, but a political action thriller in which Bin Laden plots to destroy America even after his death. Along with Grogan's first two books, it can be digitally downloaded as an e-book from his website, questmystery.com.
All Grogan's books include this lesson: Nothing is as it seems.