BLUE HILL — From Lea Wait to Stephen King, Maine has long been the chosen setting for mystery, horror and suspense writers. Four such novelists explored this time-honored tradition Wednesday night during a panel discussion co-hosted by Blue Hill Books and the Blue Hill Public Library.
Connecticut author Chris Knopf, whose Sam Acquillo Mystery Series features a protagonist who gets caught in a storm sailing between Maine and New York’s Hamptons, moderated the discussion featuring Agatha Award-winning Katherine Hall Page, who summers in Deer Isle, former Portland Police Detective Sgt. Robert Coffin and former Maine Assistant Attorney General Kate Flora.
All write in the same broad genre, but took very different paths in their publishing careers. Flora, an Edgar Award finalist and author of 19 books including the Thea Kozak series, began her career in the Maine Attorney General’s Office chasing deadbeat dads and protecting battered children, before her fascination with people’s criminal behavior led her to write mysteries.
Page, the Agatha Award-winning writer behind the 25-book Faith Fairchild series, taught high school for many years before becoming a full-time writer.
Coffin, an Agatha nominee and author of the Detective Byron series, has an especially interesting origin story. He served as a detective sergeant in the Portland Police Department for 27 years, and spent four years working in counterterrorism with the FBI in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This experience allowed him to inject authenticity when it comes to police work into his novels and motivated him to base his character John Byron in Portland.
“I toyed with the idea of making up a fictional location [in Maine] where my detective would solve his crimes … but I spent almost 30 years doing a detective sergeant’s job in Portland, and what a waste to not use that knowledge,” Coffin said.
The group also discussed how their chosen setting can be limiting, pushing them to move their characters to some place new.
“Any of us would say that you can get a little confined,” Knopf said. “I [often] have my character hanging out with his girlfriend’s dog on the bay, sitting in these Adirondack chairs. After about eight of these books I said: ‘I have to get out of these Adirondack chairs.’”
Despite the sometimes heavy nature of their writing, the panelists’ conversation was light and relaxed, enlightening listeners about some of their craft’s unsaid rules. For instance, while people come to all sorts of untimely deaths in their novels, pets are off-limits.
“No pets are killed … that actually is true. I would never harm a cat,” said Page with a laugh. Her books fall in the category of cozy mysteries or “cozies,” one of the more cheery subgroups of the expansive genre.
“It’s largely true, even in the hardboiled [books] you don’t see that sort of thing,” added Knopf, speaking of the more dark and unsentimental style he writes in. “My wife says that the only reason she will read my books is because she knows nothing will ever happen to the dog.”
The group also discussed their main characters’ inconsistent aging. Often, their central sleuth will hover around middle age for an entire series, never seeming to get older.
Page’s response? “It’s fiction, baby.”
To learn more about upcoming literary and cultural events in Blue Hill, visit Blue Hill Books’ website at bluehillbooks.com or the Blue Hill Public Library site at bhpl.net.