The Mystery of Maine Mystery Writers

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Istock.com: George Marks (woman); PeteSherrard (Man on beach)

We live in one of the least homicidal, most neighborly places in the country. Why has crime fiction become our de facto state literary genre?

By Jaed Coffin

A few years ago, my English brother-in-law — a project manager at a manufacturing company — started writing novels. His first book was about a widowed man in northern England trying to raise a teenage son against the backdrop of a challenging post-Thatcher economy. Macmillan, a major publishing house, promptly bought and released the novel, and it did very well across the pond. My brother-in-law seemed to have a shot at becoming the next Nick Hornby: a writer of domestic stories about the modern British family.

Shortly after the book came out, he and my sister moved to Brunswick, my hometown, to start a family. As he acclimated to this new life, his writing began to take an odd turn. His next novel — set in the fictional-yet-familiar town of Barrow, Maine — told the story of a menacing figure attempting to break up the narrator’s marriage; the ending is not uplifting. His third and fourth novels followed an escalating pattern of darkness, so much so that his new publisher, HarperCollins, asked him to invent a pen name so he might publish his next books under their Killer Reads thriller imprint. His first book as “Alex Lake,” After Anna, begins with a sadistically plotted child abduction; his next book, Killing Kate, introduces a sociopath who murders similar-looking women. Copycat comes out soon. Its tagline: “Your stalker is everywhere. Your stalker knows everything. Your stalker . . . is you.” The setting: again, right here in Maine.

On one hand, my brother-in-law’s swift transition from penning sentimental domestic dramas to formulating sinister whodunits seemed reasonable enough: writing in either genre, he’s still a high-output novelist of the unapologetically pulp variety. On the other hand, his metamorphosis unsettled me. Did something change in him when he moved to Maine? Did Maine itself change him? Like the protagonist of one of his novels, I found myself looking upon Alex Lake with an uncomfortable, rising suspicion: what if my sister’s husband was not the person I thought he was?

mystery books on ground

Mainer authors and their gumshoes, a sampler. Gerry Boyle: North Woods journalist. D.A. Keeley: Aroostook County border agent. Bruce Robert Coffin: Portland cop. Linda Greenlaw: island insurance investigator. Photograph by Benjamin Williamson

One of the all-time longest-running television dramas, Murder, She Wrote, chronicled a mystery writer’s exploits in the fictional village of Cabot Cove, on the Maine coast. In 12 seasons, from 1984 to 1996, Cabot Cove hosted enough violent death to bump its homicide rate significantly higher than the current rate in Caracas, Venezuela, the murder capital of the world. Murder and make-believe, it seems, have long had a special relationship in Maine.

Nowadays, my brother-in-law has lots of company. Walk into any bookstore from Biddeford to Bangor and find a whole slew of murder mysteries written by Mainers, some who dabble (like seafaring essayist Linda Greenlaw, who put out two memoirs and a cookbook between her second and just-released third Jane Bunker mysteries) and others who go full Agatha Christie (like former Down East editor-in-chief Paul Doiron, who this month drops his eighth Mike Bowditch mystery in as many years).

“Considering we have just over a million people,” says Josh Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, which recently hosted its third annual Maine Crime Wave writers’ conference, “the concentration of crime writers here is staggering.”

Everywhere you go, there’s a good place to put a body.

It got me wondering: why, in a state with the second-lowest violent-crime rate (just behind Vermont), in a state that boasts a reputation for neighborly kindness, in a state whose economy depends on making other people feel welcome, is there such a robust strain of storytelling about the sort of violence and horror that we do not, generally speaking, experience?

To find out, I approached the Maine Crime Writers community, a gang of some 20 authors, with more than 200 books among them, who jointly maintain a blog that gets nearly 10,000 visits a month. The blog isn’t limited to matters of crime writing — one post, by former Hartland librarian John Clark, is about a bottle redemption center; another, by lawyer and former journalist Brenda Buchanan, author of the Joe Gale mystery series (three books), details none-too-malicious spring rituals, such as cleaning out her hat bin — but everyone on the blog shares a common interest in telling stories in which people die gruesome deaths.

Kate Flora — author of the Thea Kozak mystery series (seven books), the Joe Burgess police procedurals (five books), and two true-crime books — founded the Maine Crime Writers blog in 2011. She thinks the vast Maine landscape helps cultivate her fellow writers’ flair for dread. “There’s space for the imagination,” says Flora, who grew up on a chicken farm in Union. “There’s an opportunity to drive down an empty road, to see the abandoned boat, the old refrigerator. Everywhere you go, there’s a good place to put a body.”

Jen Blood, who writes the Erin Solomon mystery series (five books, plus a prequel), which takes place largely in made-up Maine communities reminiscent of her hometown of Thomaston, says her stories are often driven by what she thinks of as Maine’s “darker edge.” “You have this beautiful tranquil setting,” Blood says, “but there’s a certain mystery here: how isolated we are, the extremes of weather.” It’s what Maureen Milliken, local journalist and author of the Bernie O’Dea series (two books), calls Maine’s “gothic geography” — a landscape defined by remoteness and isolation. “It’s harder to get here, harder to get help. Lots of wilderness and long dirt roads that end suddenly in the middle of the woods.” For Barbara Ross — whose Maine Clambake Mysteries (five books, with a sixth on the way) exist in a more innocent subgenre known as “cozy mysteries,” with titles like Clammed Up, Boiled Over, and Musseled Out — the Maine of her imagination is “a marvelous combination of amazing sunlight and dark places, charming small towns with long memories and secrets.”

We certainly wouldn’t want to live in a state where crime like this is always happening, but it’s fun to fantasize: what if?

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But can landscape alone really explain why a writer like my brother-in-law would break bad? I grew up in Maine — spent my boyhood thrashing through the woods, my teenage years riding bikes around old quarries — and my writerly sensibility is not what I’d call macabre. All that open space, if anything, has inclined me toward an aesthetic of tranquility and contemplation. Anyway, there are a dozen states less densely populated than Maine. Plus, there are plenty of people in Florida, and Elmore Leonard makes that landscape pretty creepy too, as do Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley with Los Angeles. The difference in Maine is that we seem to have so many Leonards and Chandlers and Mosleys churning out books. Not to mention Alex Lakes.

More than one person from the Maine Crime Writers set offered an additional explanation that I’ve come to think of as the “luxury principle.” The idea is that because Mainers don’t see much homicide or violent crime, we’re left to imagine such experiences through the stories we tell. It’s like what they teach in high school about the cathartic origins of the Greek tragedy: the experience of watching other people suffer on grand scales allows us to purge our own hearts of similar but smaller impulses.

Bruce Robert Coffin is one of the rare Maine crime authors who knows his subject intimately and firsthand. A former homicide detective, he worked on the Portland police force for 30 years before writing his first book, Among the Shadows, last year. It’s a powerful story about how the past haunts the present, the way memory can change and mutate with revelation and knowledge. Into just over 300 pages Coffin crams more than half a dozen deaths, and he suspects readers are drawn to his work by a morbid curiosity about what so few of them will ever experience.

“It’s human nature to want to get a peek, to want to live in our imagination, in a place that’s not like what we know,” he says. “Maybe we’re bored with reality. We certainly wouldn’t want to live in a state where crime like this is always happening, but it’s fun to fantasize: what if?”

“If I witnessed violent crime on a regular basis,” Brenda Buchanan tells me, “it probably would feel less like an escape to write about it.”

Maine averages about two dozen homicides per year — and of course the vast majority aren’t actually mysteries. It’s not surprising, then, that a quick analysis of the most widely read stories of the last two years in the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News suggests that murder isn’t what most captivates us. Rather, we seem more drawn to deaths without villains or motives. Two of 2016’s top stories concerned deaths without culprits: those of Geraldine Largay, who went missing on the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and died of starvation in her tent, and Lucie McNulty, the Wells woman found in her trailer more than two years after her death. Also widely read were stories about the sinking of the El Faro with four young Mainers aboard and coverage of Maine’s opioid epidemic, both calamities for which it’s difficult to hold any one bad guy responsible. All this in a state where even the more prosaic headlines document the slow-motion implosion of the manufacturing economy — yet another anonymous injury, and the one that’s perhaps done the most harm to the largest number of people for the longest period of time. Even for those of us who point fingers at macro factors — the influence of corporations or global trade agreements — our ultimate villain remains a man without a face.

By creating stories with villains, motives, and logic underpinning why bad things happen to good people, perhaps Maine crime writers offer an antidote to a moment in our culture when answers seem otherwise hard to come by. Lea Wait, who has eight mysteries centered on the antique-prints trade and another four inspired by her affection for needlepoint (Twisted Threads, Threads of Evidence, Thread and Gone), suggests that “people turn to crime fiction in challenging economic and political times because, although bad things happen in mysteries, 99 percent of the time the villain is caught, and when you finish the last chapter, there is hope for the future.”

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And yet, I’m skeptical that what drives Maine’s huge volume of crime fiction could be anything quite as simple as an attempt to tame our wild geography, or to feed our voyeuristic impulses, or to soothe our villain-less cultural anxieties, because the best writing in any genre is never done in the spirit of ultimate explanation or conclusion.

Gerry Boyle has written 12 crime novels, and his most recent book, Straw Man, contains all the usual elements of landscape, violence, and cultural angst. The protagonist, Jack McMorrow, a journalist in northern Maine, hangs around with his war-veteran buddies, who work part time as loggers, as he struggles to get his head around modern life: He grapples with gender issues provoked by his wife’s desire to pursue a career outside her role as a mother and wife. His idea of manhood is challenged by a passive-aggressive neighbor’s self-righteous sensitivity and work as an organic goat farmer. He feels the contradictory pulls of personal gun ownership and sensible background checks as he strives to protect his family from dangerous men. Every one of his interactions with the several African-American characters in Straw Man is loaded with implications of racial profiling.

Boyle says he wanted only to “shine a light on our culture” and explore what it means to be a good man in today’s Maine.

Straw Man is an excellent and satisfying story, but satisfying in part because it doesn’t arrive at a comforting hope for the future. I gave Boyle a call to ask about his ambitions for the book, and his answer was modest. He wanted only to “shine a light on our culture” and to explore what it means to be a good man in today’s Maine. “I just wanted to lay bare some of the questions that had been swirling around in my head for a very long time,” he said.

Boyle seems content to let the many issues he raises hang there for readers to chew on — open questions that defy narrative resolution. In Maine, where there are plenty of things to feel uneasy about — the economy, politics, racism, drugs, and the deep, dark woods — we’re fortunate that homicide doesn’t tend to be one of them. But murder mysteries like Strawn Man and the rest do provide a fraught, disquieting backdrop, an emotional analogue for real-life, to address these other worries in fiction. That, I suspect, is the underlying impulse behind the phenomenon of Maine crime writing. We want books that help us reckon with the present. That’s real catharsis.

Since reading Straw Man, I’ve been able to make more sense of my brother-in-law’s evolution into Alex Lake: his desire to write about murder is probably less about the dark corners of his mind and more about confronting what he didn’t understand about his new life in a new place. As an outsider, someone from way away, maybe he’s more attuned to unease in Mainers’ collective psyche. It made me think back to something Kate Flora told me earlier about crime novelists. “We’re the people dealing with violence and horror,” she said, “but maybe we’re writing the most reassuring books there are.”

Reassuring, I think, for reader and writer both.

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Jaed Coffin

Jaed Coffin is the author of the memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and the forthcoming Roughhouse Friday. He lives in Brunswick.