FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
Should I read the mysteries in order, or doesn’t it matter?
I always tell prospective readers that the plots are totally different from one book to another, and that if you are primarily interested in the question of whodunit, it makes no difference whether you read them in the order in which they were written. However, if you are very much interested in the relationship between the main characters—the young woman sheriff and the vacationing professor of music—there may be some advantage in reading them in order. The relationship between these two central figures in the books is a subtext throughout the series, and it does evolve over time.
Which of the murder mysteries is your own personal favorite?
I try very hard not to answer this question. I have discovered that my favorite book is usually the one I am currently writing, inasmuch as my interests are tied up in developing its plot (which gives me most pleasure). But I like all of the books for different reasons, and to answer the question of which is my favorite I would have to talk about the ideas that prompted me to write each traditional mystery and how I managed to bring it to conclusion. That, of course, would take quite a bit of time, and I suspect that the prospective reader would just smile and walk on by.
May I infer that there is something biographical in the books?
I will have to confess that I have loved music all my life, having played piano and drums, done a lot of singing, and frequented concerts and operas for a very long time. So it may be no accident that I chose to make one of my two central characters a professor of music. However, Kevin Whitman, the professor, is not my alter ego. Nor have I consciously created characters that are based on people I know or have known. And my plots are definitely not based on my life experience, which has been thankfully free of murder and other crimes.
Have you chosen the cover photos or has the publisher?
This is an interesting question, because it leads me to some thoughts on the importance of a book’s first impression. Although the publisher has designed all of my covers, I have chosen the photos, all of which were taken by Steve Knapp a photographer friend who lives near Crooked Lake. The one book of the first six whose cover does not show the lake is the second, The Man Who Wasn’t Beckham. It is also the book that has sold least well, and that is a shame because I believe it contains a strong yarn, has some very interesting characters, and is important to understanding the relationship between the sheriff and the professor. But readers have already been led to believe that my books are about the lake, and what they see on the cover is not a lake but a waterfall. The photo is directly related to the plot, but I suspect that it is less effective in hooking the prospective reader.
How do you choose your titles, and have you ever regretted any of your choices?
Usually the title is suggested by something that prompted me to write the book.
For example, I was driving through one of the area’s vineyards one day when I happened to see a scarecrow (there are very few of these left, unfortunately). That very afternoon I started work on The Scarecrow in the Vineyard. Another example: my wife and I were trying to account for who had keys to our lake cottage (quite a few people, as it turned out). That discussion led inexorably to The Cottage with Too Many Keys. But sometimes a title springs to mind in a totally unexpected way. I was thinking about ideas for my second book at the same time I was reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. And it occurred to me that I might build a plot around a man who had adopted a fictitious name; the title became The Man Who Wasn’t Beckham. Let me add, parenthetically, that this may have been a poor choice, no matter how clever I thought it was, because there are lots of people who don’t know who Beckham is and simply find the title puzzling.
Haven’t you created a problem for yourself by having one of your main characters spend most of the year hundreds of miles away from Crooked Lake?
The relationship between the sheriff and the professor has been problematic from the start because their jobs keep them far apart except in the summer. Among other things, this has made it difficult to have plots that take place in fall, winter, or spring. Yet portions of several of the novels do take place when the professor is busy teaching his students down in the city (or giving professional papers in some faraway place). One of the consequences of his schedule is that the sheriff assumes a somewhat more important role in several of the books, with the professor becoming involved later as the case moves toward its conclusion. I believe, however, that readers will be well aware that solving crimes on Crooked Lake is a joint undertaking of both sheriff and professor in all of the books.
Apparently many of the place names in your books are fictional. Why did you decide not to use real place names?
I’m not entirely sure, but once I started to call Keuka Lake Crooked Lake and Hammondsport Southport, I couldn’t reverse course and use the actual names. In any event, it wouldn’t take long for readers familiar with the area to realize that Southport was really a fictionalized Hammondsport. The problem becomes trickier in the case of my fictional homes, places of business, and points of interest around the lake. In most of these cases, I am deliberately trying to avoid identification with a real place. But people are always trying hard, or so they tell me, to guess what I am referring to, even if I have no actual place in mind. If this gives readers pleasure, so be it.
Are you concerned that a fictional murder almost every year in what you describe as a normally quiet and peaceful part of the country will strain credulity?
Perhaps, but after all Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) tracked down many more killers in remote Cabin Cove in Maine than the sheriff and the professor do on Crooked Lake. So did Tony Hillerman’s detectives on the Navajo Reservation and many other fictional crime solvers. Until I can no longer conjure up new plot ideas, I suspect that the sheriff and the professor will remain busy.