Making a murderer: Blue Hill mystery writer inspired by Maine events



BLUE HILL — Is anyone capable of murder in the right circumstances?

What happens if police settle on a suspect too soon and stop looking at evidence?

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“Death at Breakfast” author Beth Gutcheon and her grandson Joseph Gutcheon and dog Nala spend time together at her East Blue Hill home PHOTO BY ROBIN CLEMENTS

Those are two questions that drive novelist Beth Gutcheon’s first mystery, “Death at Breakfast” (William Morrow), published last May.

Gutcheon, who divides her time between Blue Hill and New York, has written several works of literary fiction as well as scripts.

“I’ve always loved mysteries and I loved puzzles,” said Gutcheon, speaking from her New York home. “The kind of puzzle novel I wanted to write harkens back to English mysteries of the 1930s.”

The writer says in those works, language and humor are used very carefully.

“Most important of all, it’s a psychological puzzle,” Gutcheon said. “This book is more asking the question, is anybody capable of murder, given provocation and opportunity?”

The other issue that Gutcheon addresses in “Death at Breakfast” is that of flawed prosecutions.

Gutcheon wanted to explore what happens when police become convinced they have the right suspect and stop looking at evidence that might contradict their theory.

“I wanted to create a situation where people like you and me see this happening and try to fix it,” she said. “What would that process look like?”

“There’s a man in Maine [Dennis Dechaine] who’s been in prison for 28 years for a murder I’m convinced he didn’t do,” Gutcheon said. “That was a big motivator for me. That’s why the book is set in Maine.”

Incidentally, Gutcheon interviewed Maine law enforcement professionals in writing “Death at Breakfast,” including Hancock County Sheriff Major Richard Bishop, who is thanked in the acknowledgements page.

Questions have driven other Gutcheon novels, including “Saying Grace,” set in a California school.

“I was writing the story about how healthy institutions, be they bodies or marriages or schools or nations how fragile they are, how rapidly they become undermined when members of the community think only about themselves,” Gutcheon said.

Newspaper articles also become book fodder.

A Jan. 3, 1985, Ellsworth American story about who may have really killed alleged ax murderer Lizzie Borden’s parents inspired another book, “More Than You Know.”

In the article, American reporter John Wiggins interviewed a Cherryfield woman who was reportedly the last living person to have contact with the Borden family.

The woman, Dr. Ruby Cameron, claimed that Lizzie’s boyfriend killed her parents. Cameron knew this because her family was from Fall River, Mass. where the Bordens lived and her mother worked at a house next door to the family.

Inspiration also comes from stories and hearsay.

Another seed for “More Than You Know” took root when Gutcheon heard that a barn-like living room in a house in North Brooklin had originally been on Long Island and brought to the mainland across the ice one winter.

“More Than You Know” was Gutcheon’s first novel to be set in Maine. The Pennsylvania native has been spending every summer in Maine since she was 10. She is married now to a man she met on the Maine coast as a teenager. They have an elderly poodle named Daisy Buchanan.

Gutcheon fans may not realize that her writing career started with books on quilt-making: “The Perfect Patchwork Primer” and “The Quilt Design Workbook.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English with honors from Harvard, Gutcheon married an architect and had a baby. She had begun teaching quilt-making.

One morning, The New York Times did an article about classes Gutcheon was teaching.

“Because it was New York there were publishers everywhere,” she said. “There had been a needlework craze and the publishers realized quilting this was the next big thing and it was.”

So, she was contracted to write the quilting books.

A novel that she wrote, which she never intended to be published, was her first work of fiction: “The New Girls.”

Her second novel, “Still Missing,” about a missing child inspired the movement to put such children’s photos on milk cartons. The novel also raised awareness for the organization, Child Find of America.

Gutcheon was hired to write a screenplay for “Still Missing,” which resulted in the 1983 movie “Without a Trace” starring Kate Nelligan, Judd Hirsch and Stockard Channing.

Gutcheon’s other novels include “Domestic Pleasures,” “Five Fortunes,” “More Than You Know,” “Leeway Cottage,” “Good-bye and Amen” and “Gossip.”

The novels have been translated into 14 languages. In 2005, Harper Collins republished Gutcheon’s entire backlist in uniform trade paperback editions.

Gutcheon also has written several film scripts and was nominated for an Academy Award for her script, “The Children of Theatre Street.”

When Gutcheon isn’t writing, she’s reading.

“I’ve been reading a lot of Clive James’ “Cultural Amnesia,” dense and very smart and very funny,” she said.

Gutcheon also recently read and says she can’t stop thinking about, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” a biography of a brilliant young man from the Newark slums, written by his Yale roommate.

Gutcheon belongs to a Shakespeare reading group, which is currently reading “Richard II.” That means she also has stacks of books about Shakespeare and Elizabeth II as well as “How to be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide for Tudor Life” by Ruth Goodman.

Gutcheon is a reviewer for AudioPhile.

“At the moment, I’m reviewing a new recording of Mary Stewart’s ‘The Crystal Cave.’ It is just heaven.”

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.