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First novel plumbs life's gray area

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"Theory of Remainders" book cover

Neat, uncomplicated answers have their place, but maybe not as often as we'd wish. In the real lives of humans, with all of our histories, triggers and emotions, things don't often work out so easily.

Debut novelist Scott Carpenter plumbs that gray area in his book "Theory of Remainders," in which the disorderly conclusion of an uneven division problem is given the mantle of life.

Carpenter teaches French literature at Carleton College and is already the author of a collection of short stories. He spent about three years at work on "Theory of Remainders."

He describes a remainder as "the bit that doesn't fit, that needs to be rounded up or down or off. But remainders also have to do with all that is left behind after the essential has disappeared — bones or ruins or memories or scars."

In Carpenter's story, Philip Adler, a 52-year-old psychiatrist, is drawn back into a chapter of his former life when his ex-wife's mother dies. He travels to France for the funeral, and there finds himself on a quest to solve unanswered questions about the brutal murder of his teenage daughter 15 years earlier.

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In two hair-raising, face-to-face meetings with his daughter's convicted murderer — conversations that will call to mind the erudite exchanges with Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris' series of novels — Adler sniffs out the real truth of what took place.

Carpenter took inspiration for his story from Jacob Wetterling's disappearance, which occurred only a few months after his own son was born and his family was preparing to move back to Minnesota

"Month after month, year after year, my wife and I followed the turns of that relentless investigation, the solution to which remained elusive," Carpenter said. "That said, 'Theory of Remainders' is not based on a particular case, and the characters are completely fictional."

The novel, published by Winter Goose Publishing, a Sacramento, Calif,. imprint, is on the verge of making the leap to the national level, Carpenter says. It was selected as a June "pick" by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, translation rights are being discussed, and multiple parties have expressed interest in film options, Carpenter says.

An official public launch of "Theory of Remainders" is scheduled for June 24 at Common Good Books in St. Paul, followed by an event in Northfield on June 25 and at the Minneapolis Club on June 26. Carpenter will appear at the Laureate's Writers Series in Winona, at The Bookshelf, on July 2. The book will be in stock at Barnes & Noble stores in Rochester today or Tuesday, Carpenter says, and can be ordered from online sellers.

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Scott Carpenter, author of "Theory of Remainders"

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