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A Robust, Caffeinated Comedy: “The Great American Deception”

"The Great American Deception" author Scott Stein, professor in the Drexel University College of Arts and Sciences


July 27, 2020

In the near future, a mall-society spanning coast to coast has replaced much of the USA, and Private Investigator Frank Harken has made a name for himself as a no-nonsense detective. After wisecracking, coffee-making robot Arjay becomes Harken’s sidekick, the unlikely duo takes on the case of a missing woman and travels through the outlandish underworld of the Great American.

This is the basic premise of “The Great American Deception,” the newest novel by Teaching Professor of English Scott Stein, MFA. The book earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which also named it a “Book of the Week” and called it a “madcap sci-fi take on the hard-boiled detective genre… a constant delight.” Read on to learn more!

Your novel takes place in the strange environment of the Great American. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind this futuristic setting?

Setting is crucial to this novel. In fact, I came up with the idea for the Great American setting before I had a plot or characters or anything else. As a satirist, I like thinking up exaggerated fictional worlds that allow me to highlight society’s absurdities, and shopping malls sometimes feel like an exaggerated, concentrated version of American society to begin with. Everything is louder, brighter, more focused on selling you something. I made the mall the entire world for these characters. This setting freed me up to write wild scenes and go wherever my imagination took me.

The novel has been described as a “science fiction private eye/coffee spoof.” Can you talk about your approach to genre with the book, and how it informed the characters of Frank Harken and Arjay?

Once I had the futuristic setting, I decided to try writing a detective story, which I’d never done before. This makes “The Great American Deception” a mashup of two genres, mystery and science fiction, and the novel plays with the conventions of these genres. My primary goal was comedy. I wanted to write the funniest novel I could, to see how many jokes and comedic scenes I could fit while telling a compelling story. Frank Harken wasn’t too hard to create — he’s the gruff noir detective you expect in a mystery story. The extraordinary coffeebot, Arjay, was more difficult to get right. The book’s success hinged on finding the right voice for this character, whose caffeinated, improvisational narration drives the story and comedy. Once I found Arjay’s voice, I knew I could write this book.

The Great American Deception contains a number of Easter eggs — from Star Trek to the Rolling Stones and even the classrooms of Drexel University! What do you think these cultural references add to the book?    

This novel is all about the joy of words. From the plot and dialogue to the descriptions and wacky footnotes, every sentence is designed to make reading fun. The Easter eggs add a layer of entertainment for the reader and also a layer of entertainment for me while I write. Will non-Drexel people know that “the garden level” refers to some of our classrooms? Probably not, but that doesn’t matter — those readers won’t be confused because they won’t know there’s a reference in the first place. But the people who do get it might smile when they see a joke that’s just for them. Anyway, I smiled when I wrote them, imagining the moment a reader realizes that a detail from “The Princess Bride” is mentioned as if it’s actual history.

Do you have any advice for aspiring comedic writers?

Of course, there’s the usual advice that applies to all writers — read everything you can. And read everything you write aloud at least twice. Your ears can be your best tool for crafting engaging prose and dialogue. Comedy writing also demands close attention to details and the connotations of words. Revise more than you think you need to. Small changes can make a sentence and getting the sentence right is everything.

The Great American Deception” is available from most book retailers; sample chapters are available on Amazon.