Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Question of Class #mystery @barbross

LUCY BURDETTE: I love love love Barbara Ross's Maine Clambake mystery series. Her characters feel so real, and the setting is interesting and unique. As she was preparing to launch her fourth book, Fogged Inn, I persuaded her to visit us here. And we not only get her smart blog post, we get her husband Bill's fabulous photographs.


Barbara Ross: Thank you so much to the Jungle Reds for having me. I had dinner with two of the Reds in Key West this week, (Hi Lucy! Hi Hallie!), but sadly now my husband and I are making the long drive back to New England.

The latest book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series, Fogged Inn, was released last week. I love writing this series about the Maine coast and the complexities of life and society in Busman’s Harbor, a small Maine town dependent on lobstering and the tourist dollars it can generate in its short summer season. And I love writing about my protagonist, Julia Snowden, a young woman who returns to town to save her family’s failing clambake business from bankruptcy.

As I’ve written the Maine Clambake series, I’ve thought a lot about the question of class and the complexity that topic all across American life. I suspect like a lot of authors, I find it to be a minefield.

For one thing, there’s the general role of class in American life, which is often contradictory and hard to understand. It has to do with money, or perhaps more broadly with resources, but not exclusively, and also with outlook, aspiration, opportunity, and peers (who are, in some cases, resources).

Julia Snowden is the product of a marriage between a summer person mother, whose family owns a mansion on a private island, and a dad who as a teen delivered groceries to the island on his skiff. By the time Julia’s parents marry, there isn’t much economic difference between their families. Julia’s mother’s family fortune is long gone. Though they’ve hung onto the island, the mansion is empty and in disrepair. Julia’s grandfather on her father’s side is a successful lobsterman.

But, as Julia says in Clammed Up, the first book in the series. “A town person marrying a summer person was still rare, but had been even rarer when my parents married thirty-two years ago. Especially a marriage between a high-school educated boy and a girl from a family that owned an island. As a result I’ve always felt a little apart. Neither a local nor a summer person, I didn’t fit in anywhere. I went to elementary school and junior high in the harbor, but always knew I’d go away for high school. It wasn’t a financial thing. During my childhood there was still good money to be made from lobstering, fishing and construction. I was separated by a mother From Away, and my parents’ expectations for me.”

In some ways, the complexities of Julia’s family echo those of any resort town. As she explains in, Boiled Over, “Oh geez, the socio-dynamics of a resort town. The natives look down on the seasonal homeowners, who look down on the monthly house-renters, who look down on the weekly hotel-stayers, who look down the weekenders, who look down on the day-tripping tourists, who look down on the natives, in an endless cycle of misunderstanding.”

As I write the characters that populate my Maine town, the locales, the summer people, the retirees, and the tourists, I want to give them all their due—to recognize their struggles, honor their perspectives and not judge their choices (or in some cases, lack of choice). I find the best way is to be specific—to write about specific people, with specific histories, in a specific place. The road to stereotypes is paved with generic characters and settings, and I find myself attracted to stories that recognize the complexities and contradictions of real lives.

Readers, how to you react to the social structures occupied by the characters in books you read? Writers how do you negotiate the minefield of class in America in the characters you create?

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries, Clammed Up, Boiled Over, Musseled Out and Fogged Inn. Clammed Up was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and was a finalist for the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. Barbara blogs with a wonderful group of Maine mystery authors at Maine Crime Writers and with a group of writers of New England-based cozy mysteries at Wicked Cozy Authors.

She is always thrilled to hear from readers. You can find her via her website at, or on Facebook at, on Twitter @barbross, or on Pinterest at


  1. It certainly seems as if folks living in places that attract summer visitors or seasonal tourists feel a bit of proprietorship about their town; I know there are always grumblings about the summer folks at the shore even though the economy of the area depends on the summer beachgoers. It is a bit of a conundrum.
    As for the social structures of the characters in books, if it’s honest and well-drawn, it’s good . . . stereotypical characters and settings are frustrating and annoying.

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  3. I live in a place where the population ebbs and flows with the seasons (and where one very popular bumper sticker used to be "If we can't shoot 'em why do they call it tourist season?"). There's the legitimate argument that the economy is entwined with the seasonal people and the tourists-- but also the other side that some of us do live here, and get very frustrated with people who treat this as a playground to be careless with and endlessly criticise. People who let their kids harass marine life, who feed the seagulls, who leave their cigarette butts in the sand, who don't tip at restaurants because they won't be back...they all make it hard to be tolerant of the people who do nothing more heinous than clog our favorite shops and our roads half the year.

    On the flip side, I think it makes me more cognisant of these issues when I travel. We were with a high school group outside the US last year, and every time someone in the group was a stereotypical Ugly American, I think I died a little inside.

  4. We have a summer influx as well--and with the growing popularity of indoor water resorts, there's a continual influx of people into those places year-round. Besides all of the issues noted by Joan and Jennifer above, some issues go deeper, as Barb Ross noted. We get plenty of speeches by the politicians about how the economy has improved here--all the great new jobs--BUT those jobs are service industry jobs that typically don't pay a living wage and often get filled--especially in the summer--by people with summer green cards.

    As for characters in books--make them real, honest, no matter their position in life, and I'll be in it for the duration of the story--the series, I'm hooked!

  5. You do such a good job with making your characters real, Barb. I just finished reading FOGGED INN - another hit!

    Readers, one of Barb's local characters speaks today as my guest over on the Killer Characters blog! Take a listen to Officer Jamie Dawes here:

  6. Boy do these issues resonate with my setting (and also the place I live), Key West. Because it's so warm all year, we have not only tourists, but a large number of homeless folks. As you can imagine, major conflicts ensue between homeless, seasonal tourists, cruise ship visitors, and locals (called conchs.)

    I'm almost to the end of Fogged Inn and enjoying so much! There's another interesting theme in your book--people who have "escaped" the small town, but have returned home for one reason or another and struggle with how it feels to be back.

  7. Another shout-out from me - LOVE this series! So happy to see the new one which I have right on my bedside table as I speak. R

    eading your comments about town/summer relationships it strikes me how it's similar to town/gown -- relationship between college student and townie... and the friction between the factions a la romeo and juliet. They say CONFLICT is the most important seasoning for any story, and there you have it built into the very fabric of your story.

  8. Mornin', Barb!! Fun to find you here this morning. I love your series, and it's one I relate to.

    Boone, where we live, is much like what you describe.

    The locals are, for the most part, families who have been here and on family land for generations. The land is not as many acres as it once was but they try to hold on to it as long and as tightly as they can. There's some resentment in some quarters towards those who have moved here for any number of reasons, and who are, for the most part, employed by the university here. Then there are the "summer people" who come up from Florida, have bought homes at ridiculous prices and have caused property prices to be at a level those of us living here can no longer afford. We have seasonal skiers and weekend leaf lookers.

    We all depend on one another for different aspects of our lives.


    It does not stop the underlying currents that are constantly eddying and occasionally erupting. Especially in zoning issues.

  9. Hi Everybody!

    What fun to be here this morning. Your comments are very helpful as I write Book 5, particularly those of you who have loved it.

    Hallie, I think your comment about town and gown is accurate, and Kaye seems to confirm it in the comment right under yours.

    Lucy, thanks so much for inviting me. I am so sorry to have left Key West, which has so many of the same issues, adding in all the cruise ship visitors.


  10. My father-in-law spends his summers up at Sherkston Beach, Ontario. He owns his trailer and lives there all summer. And there is always a bit of a "hmphf" when it comes to the folks who come to the park for the day or have weekend/weeklong rentals. Even though there is probably no difference in class/economics/social status between the two groups. I guess it's a "we live here and you're just visiting" mentality.

    And Hallie, yes! College towns. My university was the biggest "thing" (and probably the second biggest employer) in the Olean, NY area. The businesses in the little neighboring town of Allegany both loved and hated the college students. They loved us because we went the bars and restaurants and ordered pizza. They hated us because we were "outsiders" who only lived in the area for 10 months of the year, made a mess, and went home. And for our part, we called them "townies" and some (not me) looked down on them because, well, they weren't university students.

    I agree. If you draw the character realistically you're fine. It's when you sink into cliche that you get in trouble.

  11. I love, love, love Barb Ross's series as well!

    This post exemplifies her intelligent approach to mystery writing. Threaded through Barb's stories are the kinds of conflicts faced by real people, and she writes with such deep respect for her characters.

    In my Joe Gale series I've tried to acknowledge how class informs human interaction. In Quick Pivot, longtime reporter Paulie Finnegan's background is contrasted with that of the scion of the Preble family:

    Valedictorian of the 1958 graduating class at Riverside High School, Preble was a track star and senior prom king. He was the first local boy accepted to Harvard since the mid-forties, not that anyone should have been surprised, given the Preble family legacy. He came home seven years later, with two degrees to hang on the wall and a couple of years of world travel under his belt. The Chronicle did a front page story about his homecoming.

    Paulie got his South Portland High School diploma in 1956, barely having met the requirements for graduation. Thank God for shop class. Then he did some travel of his own, but it was on Uncle Sam’s dime. Paulie was pretty sure nobody in his Ferry Village neighborhood noticed when he was honorably discharged by the Coast Guard.

  12. Count me among Barb's many fans, precisely because her Clambake series, while cozy, doesn't brush aside the real issues of Maine coastal towns. I can always tell when I'm reading a book by an author whose closest relationship with our state was a weekend trip or watching the Murder, She Wrote series. The words 'quaint', 'crusty' (referring to an old lobsterman) and idyllic will all be used. Natives will dress like an LL Bean catalogue (except for the crusty lobsterman, who wears old pants that smell of fish and a turtleneck sweater) and the people from away )who are not called people from away) have just walked out of the the Brooks Brother's summer clothing sale.

    Maine is complicated, with real issues about class, property values, poverty, zoning, nativism, management of forests and fisheries...dozens of things that aren't touched on by writers using the state as window dressing. Barb never does that, and I appreciate it.

    That being said, Barb, when do we get a book where governor "Lou LePlage" is found floating face down in the waters off Busman's Harbor? That has the potential to be a real bestseller! :-)

  13. Welcome, Barb! I'm so intrigued by the "real Maine" and all of its issues — that plus a cat on the cover! Sign me up! As a New Yorker, I kinda like the tourists (although I stay away from Times Square, as a rule).

  14. I've had my eye on Fogged Inn for a while now, as the cover draws me in so. And, well, I'm a fog fan. The timing here on the Reds blog is always so perfect in my reading life. I am currently reading a series that is set in San Francisco with fog as a recurring element, I just received a book some of you might be familiar with entitled Time of Fog and Fire, and here today is Fogged Inn. I'm thinking maybe I should just make March my "fog" month.

    Barbara, Fogged Inn will be my first Clambake mystery read, but I always go back and pick up the previous books. After reading your post and all the comments about how authentic your series is, I'm looking forward to reading your stories set in a place I'd love to visit. And, your attention to detail about class and the different peoples that inhabit a place have me thinking about being more aware of that element. I've always appreciated and gravitated toward books that portrayed the interacting of different groups of people in a realistic manner, but now I will probably be thinking of it even more.

  15. Hi

    I'm on the road back from Key West. Today's leg, Fayetteville, NC to Alexandria, VA. The internet was annoyingly terrible at our hotel in NC this morning. Now I'm in a diner in Emporia, VA,

    Thanks everyone for your kind comments about the Maine Clambake Mysteries. It makes me so happy people are enjoying them.

    Julia, thanks for your comments about the real Maine. The last one made me laugh and then made me want to cry! I have considered murdering the crony who is buying up great swaths of my little Maine town. (Fictionally, of course.)

    I'm sure it's different out in the neighborhood enclaves in the far flung boroughs, but I love the way in NYC you're a native as soon as you master the subway system and ordering a sandwich at the deli. (Hesitate and you die--works for both.) None of this "from away" stuff.

  16. I think this is one of the things that makes your books so interesting. You have layers of different types of people in your stories.

  17. The conflicts of your series, and the conflicts Julia feels, are some of the reasons I love it. I have spent a lot of time on the Cape, and also worked for Universities. Tensions between folks are part of life there, but everywhere. Julia is an outsider insider, and I love her take on things. I also LOVE this series.

  18. I love not only the series, but reading about these sorts of real-life issues. When I moved to CT a few years ago and landed in Norwich (not a tourist mecca by any stretch of the imagination), I was still struck by the attitudes of people "born and raised" here and how others didn't measure up. I remember an interview I did for the paper I worked for back then. The man I was speaking to had spent 25 years in the town, had invested in it and bought property and tried to make it more appealing for people to visit and live, and he was still referred to as an outsider. Crazy stuff.

  19. A tourist season. I always wondered why there was no bag limit :). There was another popular bumper sticker in Miami, it read "Welcome to Miami. Leave your money. Go." That was a different Miami. There's not much of a tourist season there anymore. It does often seem that tourists are not on their best behavior though. Living in Florida I've had them come into my yard and pick fruit from the trees and watched people scurry from commercial groves with laundry baskets of fruit. Strikes me as odd. Do they do that at home? Don't know. It's dangerous to paint with a broad brush as a writer. I like Barbara's approach of giving each character its due. There's a lot of wonderful things to be found that way.

  20. Love the conversation here. I moved to a resort town fourteen years ago to run a B&B and am still considered "new." There is definitely tension here. However, the summer locals tend to cause more of it than the tourists. Most tourists seem happy to be here and are usually easy to get along with (although sometimes clueless - can you PLEASE use the cross walks??) The summer locals have buckets of money and can be somewhat vocal about "you wouldn't have a job if I didn't come to your town every summer" and "what on earth do you people do here in the winter." Most year-round locals suck it up and wait to "get their town back" at the end of season. Hallie is right - plenty of tension to include in a story (and definitely a lot of motives for murder mysteries!)

  21. I remember the fun we had as children in Marblehead as we planned our class-based revenge on the tourists who invaded our town during the season. It was humiliating to be photographed doing our childhood thing then asked to repeat the activity so strangers could record it.

    During summers in Marblehead parents and adult neighbors were most helpful in passing along the stories of their own "gawkers' special" tricks. When an outsider complained? They were at their exemplar best. as they shut down their coffee shops and fried clam concessions or made the main street "One Way" in both directions.

    Some of these stories go back generations to the beginning of colonial settlement, the favorites though cluster during revolutionary times. Knowing that your ancestors were neighbors with your best friends' ancestors--or your girl or boyfriend's--had a solid way of shaping your behavior.

  22. The Clambake series sounds wonderful. I hate the general assumptions made by people about each other based on where they're from. We need a national plague of courtesy and friendliness to sweep through. Let's face it: people can be pretty damn stupid and thoughtless.

  23. When I taught in Jamaica, friends talked about taxi drivers and other service worker types, neglecting or over-charging locals during tourist season. She also said they took note of who did that when deciding who to do business with the rest of the year.

  24. What wonderful, thoughtful comments.

    Linda--my mother-in-law ran a B&B in our Maine town for 15 years, so I totally get it. She felt the tourists we stayed in B&Bs, ie the people who didn't need TVs in every room or a pool, were the best tourists. (Of course, that was her take.)

    Pat-I am all for a national plague of courtesy, though as a New Englander, I have to draw the line at friendliness. :-)

    Reine--Marblehead is a perfect example of a town that is a suburb and a summer place (decreasingly so) and its own place all in one.

    Kait--laughing about "Leave Your Money. Go." Very straightforward, if nothing else.

    Mary--that's a whole "small town" topic in and of itself. Choosing vendors based on how they treat others, (or their mothers.) Only in a small place would you even know.

    Thanks so much for the lovely comments about the Maine Clambake Mysteries and Fogged Inn.

  25. Kait, wow, I can't believe the nerve of going into someone's yard or orchard and stealing fruit. In Key West, the worst visitor behavior has to do with drunkenness and lack of clothing--more on that to come in KILLER TAKEOUT. But in a milder way, tourists do things like simply ignoring traffic lights. Since when did it become ok to just cross the street even if your light is red? And then glare at the rest of us? John and I get strong urges to go around correcting people, but we mostly hold back:)

  26. Roberta, although you can get ticketed for jay walking, I'm afraid it's de rigueur in the Boston area. To be fair I haven't been there in 2 or 3 years but it was like that even that recently. People will look the other way and even hold their hands like a traffic cop as if that guarantees you will stop. Scary. I've only seen one naked person crossing the street there, however. That was 1996 in the theatre district at Tremont and Stuart.

  27. Barb, I love your little lobster icon!

  28. And, Barb... I love your clambake books! xoxo

  29. This post has sparked such an insightful conversation, Barb! I think your perspective is an important part of why your books are so well loved.

  30. Thanks, all. As Roberta says, crimes in Key West tend to drunkenness, and all the associated behaviors, like walking into a stranger's house and falling asleep on their couch. What always amazes me is, per the newspaper crime report, how many of these drunk tourists are cops or school principals back home in Michigan or Minnesota or wherever.