Crime Reads for your Beach Bag
Novelists Francine Mathews and Steve Axelrod Talk About their Craft
by: John Stanton
During a series of summer afternoons spent at the beach last year, I decided to read Graham Greene’s “The Comedians.” The 1966 novel is set in Haiti and features a British ex-pat hotel owner trying to navigate the violent world of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and the paramilitary forces of the Tonton Macoutes. I got as far as the first five pages, which I found myself reading over and over.
It was not the book, it was the beach. Some books simply lend themselves to reading on the beach. Others must be set aside for the cooler and slower days of autumn. At least for me. I have since read “The Comedians” and found it well worth the wait.
“There is a sense of vacation and escape in the summer season, and kicking back and relaxing,” novelist Francine Mathews said. “Probably an equal number of people tackle serious reading in the summer. But to a lot of people, it is clearly a seasonal pastime. And that is equitable with escapism.”
Mathews is the author of 29 books, and six of them take place on Nantucket. In a previous life, prior to writing, she was a CIA analyst.
“I’m a puzzle-solver by nature,” she said. “I also grew up reading detective fiction voraciously. People tell you to write what you know. I disagree. You have to write what you know as a reader.”
Even a decidedly non-mystery novel, like Jane Austen’s “Emma,” builds around the idea that a perfect little society is disrupted by what is considered a social crime, but eventually civility and peace are restored, Mathews said.
“The American innovation was that sometimes there is an inability to restore that innocence,” she said. “The American context is more jarring. Evil most often cannot be eradicated by exposing the truth.”
The hero of Mathews’ island series is Meredith “Merry” Folger, newly promoted to detective on the Nantucket Police Department. Her father is the chief of police. Right out of the gate she catches a murder.
“I like to write about Nantucket, because it could be the perfect small place, the boundaries of the ocean, the deep-rooted sense of history of the place,” she said. “There is an inherent conflict between two worlds: people who live and work there year-round, and the influx that comes to the island each summer. That conflict exacerbates the possibility of violence in my little fictional world.”
Her Nantucket books all begin with the word death. “Death on Nantucket, “Death in the Off-Season,” “Death in Rough Water,” “Death in a Cold Hard Light,” “Death in a Mood Indigo” and “Death on Tuckernuck.”
Steven Axelrod’s titles all spin off from different island slang for money: “Nantucket Sawbuck,” “Nantucket Five-Spot,” “Nantucket Grand,” “Nantucket Counterfeit.” One of his book titles refers to the annual Christmas Eve drawing, “Nantucket Red Ticket.”
The series features Henry Kennis, the chief of another fictional Nantucket Police Department. Kennis is a recent wash-a-shore, a writer of poetry, a single father. He is not your traditional hard-boiled crimegenre character.
“One thing that is slightly different is that Henry is not a drug addict, he doesn’t have a dark past, he’s raising two kids and is a decent dad. He’s a regular guy, although he also just happens to usually be the smartest guy in the room,” Axelrod said.
“He’s a kind of throwback to the Chandler stuff. He is a moral person in the immoral universe. His island universe is made up of the oligarchs and there is class warfare. Nantucket’s really America in miniature. There are racial issues, income-inequality issues, immigration issues, and he navigates all of it. He’s a straight shooter.”
These days, Axelrod is writing his sixth book in the series.Itwillbeabitofa departure, since it introduces a new main character.
Mystery books begin with a single fact: there is a crime. Most often somebody is murdered. In the solving of that crime you see the moving parts of the narrative. But it is the sense of place, and how the characters all fit into that place, that readers remember, Axelrod said.
“Ask people who read one of my books, and chances are they really won’t remember the plot,” he said. “What sticks with them are certain moments and characters. The plot is like the train rails. Nobody remembers the train rails or the track we just went over. But if you didn’t have them, the train wouldn’t go anywhere.”
Asked to compare genre novels to literature, Axelrod said that crime fiction restores order in a way that doesn’t happen in real life, and literature doesn’t feel the need to always restore order.
“Literature tries to make real moments interesting,” he said. “Genre fiction tries to make interesting stuff feel realistic. Those are two very different challenges. To make your sad childhood interesting is tough. The literature in detective fiction happens underneath and around the plot. Henry and his relationships with his kids and fiancé and the sense of the island as a Petri dish where you can see the American class system. That’s almost extraneous to the plot, but it’s the part I like.”
Like Kennis, Merry Folger sees Nantucket through the lens of her job, which requires policing the people she grew up with as well as the summer residents.
“I love to look for issues that bring that sense of a divided community,” Mathews said. “How the impact of something like real-estate prices changes the community. That is partially the theme in ‘Death on Nantucket’.”