Of all the great things about Maine, one of the most enjoyable is this strange and wonderful contradiction: consistently rated as the least violent, lowest crime state in the nation — we even have the fewest people incarcerated — it’s still a deep mine for mystery fiction.
The state has an average 20-25 murders a year, but you’d never know it from mystery novels.
If you took all the novels Gerry Boyle, Paul Doiron, Kate Emerson and numerous others who write mysteries that take place in the state and added it all up, we’d be tripping over bodies everywhere we turned.
Not only is Maine a great backdrop for mysteries, but it’s also a preferred home for mystery writers.
Why is that?
“It’s the weather,” said Tess Gerritsen this week.
“It lends itself to the process. When it gets dark, around October” not only does it make staying in and writing easier, but it “lends itself to darker themes.”
Gerritsen, who lives in Camden, should know. A retired physician, she’s been writing for decades, and her Jane Rizsoli series also became the popular “Rizzoli & Isles” TV series. Her newest book, “Last to Die,” takes place at a Maine boarding school. Fictional, of course.
Gerritsen also has a unique perspective on what makes the state attractive.
She’s from away, both physically and figuratively. A California native, she lived in Hawaii for a dozen years before a visit to Camden in the 1990s convinced her and her husband this is where they wanted to live.
Gerritsen, along with Maine crime writers Boyle, Doiron, Kate Flora and Julia Spencer-Fleming, will be part of a first-time celebration of Maine’s mystery writing culture next month.
Gerritsen is the keynote speaker and the others are panelists at Crime Wave, an event put on by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance in Portland April 19.
Boyle, a former Morning Sentinel reporter, columnist and editor and central Maine resident, also has thought a lot about what makes Maine such great fodder for mysteries.
“Its natural landscape is both beautiful and ominous,” he said this week.
“Especially this winter,” he added. “You can die just from being outside.”
While most of Gerritsen’s books take place elsewhere — though characters find their investigations leading them through Maine frequently — Boyle’s are set firmly in the state.
“It’s a small enough place that crime is still a big deal here,” he said. An obsessive newspaper clipper (and web story emailer) he points out that crimes in other states that would be a two-inch brief are front-page news in central Maine.
His seminar at Crime Wave is about characters, and it doesn’t take a place with a quantity of crime to make character work.
When he reads a crime story in the newspaper, his thought is “What brought them to this place?” He said it’s usually a long and torturous path.
“If I were still a reporter, I could find them and talk to them about it, unearth the story,” he said. “But as a novelist, I create it and try to make it as real as possible.”
Both Gerritsen and Boyle recognize character — and characters — is what makes Maine crime stories so compelling.
Because it’s so unpopulated and peaceful, Maine’s stories tend to be quirkier, Gerritsen pointed out.
She recalled one story where a small-town police chief had to keep arresting his own wife for operating under the influence. While the story was sad, it was also compelling in that Maine way.
She said that while we hear “horrible police stories” from areas with more crime, the stories in Maine are “ones of restraint,” which make better stories.
Gerritsen and Boyle also benefit from living in a place where the writing community is small and tight-knit.
“I’m pretty sure I know all the crime writers in Maine,” she said.
The crime writers all seem to know each other, but because of the geography, it’s hard for everyone to get together, she said.
Crime Wave will be a unique opportunity for Maine’s crime writers, aspiring crime writers and fans of the genre to get together and talk Maine crime, both fact and fiction.
Until then, Boyle says, he’ll keep adding to his clipping files.
The Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal have given him so much fodder, he said, “I’m not going to live long enough to write those books.”
Maureen Milliken is news editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.