DEBORAH CROMBIE: One of the (many) blessings attached to writing crime novels for twenty-plus years is the writers you come to admire--and the friends you make--along the way. For me, one of those is Francine Mathews. You may know her as Stephanie Barron, for her wonderful novels featuring Jane Austen as a detective, or for her brilliant and original stand-alone novels. But I came to Francine's books with her first series, featuring Nantucket police detective Merry Folger, and those books have remained in my sacred shelf of favorites ever since.
Luckily for all of us, new readers now have a chance to know Merry, too, and there is a new novel to boot! Here's Francine (my favorite ex-spy) to explain how it came about.
WHEN YOU NEED AN ISLAND IN THE WORST WAY
Twenty-five years or so ago, I was working as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. I’d been assigned to Eastern Europe, because the Berlin Wall had recently fallen and the lack of knowledge on the part of the US was staggering. For example, I was supposed to study the region but I knew not a single East European language. I’d been researching Brazil in graduate school when I was hired. But the situation was dire--none of the Iron Curtain apparatchiks we’d been following for years was in power any longer, and none of the old intel assumptions applied. I spent my days researching and drafting psychological profiles of emerging leaders, people who’d been dissidents for years, like Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa of Poland. It was interesting work, but I suffered from something of a Princess Complex. I hated having to be at my desk from 8 a.m. until 6, regardless of whether anything life-shaking was happening in the world; and I figured out quickly that NOBODY is really capable of nine solid hours of mental effort. Most of us pretend we’re working for at least half of that.
How much more efficient, I thought, if I simply put in a good four hours of work each day? --And did it at my own desk, instead of the Agency’s?
So I proposed the idea to my husband. What if I quit my job, stayed home, and tried to write a bestseller?
He was a little bemused by the suggestion. But he took me seriously enough to offer me a challenge. Don’t burden your dream with the necessity of financial success, he said. That’s too much pressure. Everybody has a good idea for a novel. Very few have an entire book in their heads. See if you can FINISH a story. And if you can—we’ll talk about you quitting.
I mention all this because it catapulted my writing career.
I knew it was a mistake to attempt the Great American Novel straight off the bat. The sort of people who’d taught in my college writing program—Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates—specialized in those, but it seemed a tall order to me. This was essentially an exercise designed to convince my spouse I deserved to work in my pajamas, right? I cast about for a story template, something I could analyze (like an unknown East European leader) and emulate. I hit on my favorite kind of reading: The murder mystery.
I’d been devouring detective stories since I was a kid. I’d been watching them on PBS. I was inspired by authors like P.D. James and Elizabeth George (and later Deborah Crombie) who advanced the puzzle plot into a complex study of the psychological development of characters. I was also impressed by the strong sense of place and social order that certain localities, particularly British-based mysteries, gave to the world these authors created. I began to think seriously about setting interesting people in a distinct landscape and burdening them with violent conflicts that absolutely could not be ignored.
I chose Nantucket Island to live on, for the next nine months or so that my writing project required. Why Nantucket? I had first seen the island at the age of four and had loved the place forever, it seemed. I had spent my seventeenth summer as a nanny exploring the terrain with a three-year-old on the back of my rented bicycle. But I got there from DC all-too-rarely, now. If you have to inhabit a place in your mind on a daily basis and torture its inhabitants, it had better be a place you passionately miss.
It seemed to me then, and still does today, that small New England villages offer delights similar to those of Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead. I would go further and argue that they have the same sterling qualities peculiar to Jane Austen’s universe of “two or three families in a country village.” Intimate observation of character, penetration of motive, and familiarity with ordered traditions—as well as the ways they can be violated—are the gifts of the amateur detective. They work for Emma Woodhouse in Austen’s eponymous novel as well as for Miss Marple in Nemesis.
In my case, however, I chose to make my protagonist a professional: the first female police detective on the Nantucket force, an institution run by her father and grandfather before her. Merry Folger is descended from one of the four founding families of the island, a lineage that dates back to the early 18th century. She knows Nantucket on an instinctual level, but her island is no longer an isolated, windswept and foggy world teetering on the edge of the Continental Shelf. It’s a tourist destination half the year, slowly overwhelmed by the rarified economics of outrageously wealthy Summer People who invade in jets every three seconds during the peak months of July and August. The potential for violent strains in a small community is amplified by the cultural divide between islanders and off-islanders, natives and Summer People. I’m particularly obsessed with the Nantucketers who sustain the island’s police, firemen, schools and basic services—but can barely afford to live there. They feel displaced and usurped and yet vital to a community that is their birthright; and those emotions often express themselves in violence.
I managed to finish my Spousal Exercise. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I gave it tentatively to a few people to read. One of them was my mother-in-law, a newspaper editor with an acquaintance who was a literary agent. Without informing me, she sent it to him—and a few months later, I had a two-book deal.
I quit my job and moved to Colorado.
I eventually wrote four novels in the Merry Folger Nantucket mystery series during the 1990s, before exploring other themes that intrigued me, in standalone espionage and the long-running Jane Austen mysteries I write under the pen name of Stephanie Barron. The Nantucket years were golden. They coincided with the childhoods of my two sons, whom I carried off for summer weeks among the dune grass and the wind. I would spend hours researching such things as fishing fleets and heroin addiction and climate-based beach erosion and the dying scallop industry and the impact of lawn fertilizer on the algae bloom in the Harbor—or occasionally, how FBI forensic psychologists approach serial killers. But in between, I’d buy fresh harpooned swordfish and cook it on the charcoal grill for my sunburned boys while they played baseball in the yard with their dad. It was perfect.
A year or two ago, Soho Crime asked me to consider republishing the entire series, which had gone out of print, and write a new novel in Merry Folger’s life. The books had never been digitized for eBook download, and this was a perfect opportunity. I agreed to the idea, on one condition: That I be allowed to bridge the twenty-year gap that now existed between Merry’s original outings and the current Nantucket reality. That meant I would have to reread and revise the first four novels I’d ever written...twenty-seven novels later. Friends and relations, there is no more hideous assignment on earth.
Sitting down with that Spousal Experiment for the first time in two decades convinced me it should never have seen the light of day, much less a literary agent or publisher. On the one hand, it was comforting to recognize that I’d learned something in all the years I’d been writing. On the other, it was embarrassing to think that I’d put my name on this thing in the first place. And a blessed relief to be able to edit it again before it was offered to current readers.
I decided to bring the action forward from the 1990s—nobody’s favorite decade—to an achronological present. That way, the new fifth novel—DEATH ON NANTUCKET, due out in hardcover from Soho June 6th—moves seamlessly from the previous book, DEATH IN A COLD HARD LIGHT. Moreover, all kinds of tech advances in the intervening years have transformed police work. Consider that there was no DNA analysis when Merry debuted, much less cell phones or electronic crime databases, and you begin to get the idea.
My favorite thing? New covers.
The reissued Nantucket books are gorgeous trade paperbacks instead of mass market editions, graced with the images of Cary Hazelgrove, a longtime Nantucket photographer whose work I’ve collected over the years. They offer moody, atmospheric visuals that perfectly capture the whole world I wanted to describe in print, all those years ago.
My husband and I went back to Nantucket last May to research DEATH IN NANTUCKET. In mid-May, the Summer People have not yet arrived. Most of the restaurants aren’t even open. You can easily find a parking space on Main Street. Painters are scaling ladders to brighten the clapboard fronts of the gray-shingled buildings and landscapers are sticking hydrangeas in the ground. We drove an open jeep all over the island, revisiting the places we’d loved with our boys: the turtle-fishing pond in Madaket near the Town Dump; the hedge-lined houses we’d rented on Eagle Lane and Carew Street; the ice cream place in Sconset. For a few days, it was our island again.
In my heart, and Merry Folger’s, it always will be.
DEBS: Readers who aren't familiar with the Merry Folger books, you are in for such a treat.
AND we have an extra-special gift for today's commenters--Francine is giving away two complete sets of the five Merry Folger books!!!!
So tell us in the comments if you would like to get to know Merry, and tell us your island of choice for a dream getaway!
Meanwhile, I am dreaming of Nantucket...
Here's more about DEATH IN NANTUCKET.
"Mathews takes readers on a holiday tour with an ocean view, complete with a murder mystery as twisted as the emotions that family can evoke."
Spencer Murphy is a national treasure. A
famous correspondent during the Vietnam War who escaped captivity in
Southeast Asia, he made a fortune off of his books and television
appearances. But Spence is growing forgetful with age; he's started to
wander and even fails to come home one night. When a body is discovered
at Step Above, the sprawling Murphy house near Steps Beach, Nantucket
police detective Meredith Folger is called in to investigate.
The timing couldn't be worse: It's the Fourth of July, Merry's planning
her wedding to cranberry farmer Peter Mason, and her new police chief is
gunning for her job. Merry is inclined to call the death at Step Above a
tragic accident . . . until another member of the Murphy clan comes to a
brutal end. As Merry grapples with a family of unreliable
storytellers—some incapable of recalling the past, and others determined
that it never be known—she suspects that the truth may be forever out
of reach, trapped in the failing brain of a man whose whole life may be a