Before she moved to Maine in 1990, Tess Gerritsen wrote romance novels. After a few years here, she became a best-selling author of medical thrillers and today is known for her series of novels featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles. The thrillers have been made into the popular TNT show “Rizzoli & Isles,” and Gerritsen, who lives in Camden, is one of the top-selling writers in America.
So what is it about Maine that made Gerritsen want to write about crime?
She thinks it might be the long, dark winters.
“The truth is, there is something about the weather,” she said. “Every fall, it gets to be October or November, and everything gets dark. That’s conducive to dark things.”
Gerritsen will deliver the keynote address at a one-day conference in Portland on April 19, called Maine Crime Wave. The conference will explore Maine’s literary reputation for producing top-selling literary scares.
While Maine certainly is known for its natural beauty and dream-like quality of life, it’s also a popular setting for murder and mayhem, said Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, which is organizing the conference.
Maine is home to dozens of successful crime writers who use our remote islands, dense woodlands and cobblestone streets as a playground for mystery, he said.
Some say Stephen King is responsible for our reputation as a place for shadowy suspense. Until King unleashed “Carrie” on the fictional Chamberlain, Maine, in 1974, the state was known as a quaint, remote and friendly place – a Rockwellian Yankee outpost where lobstermen greeted visitors with smiles, neighbors knew each other’s names and you never locked your doors at night.
His books have cast Maine in darkness. His timing coincided with larger societal changes in the 1960s and early ’70s, noted Paul Doiron, a conference panelist and author of the Mike Bowditch crime novels featuring a game warden.
As city populations grew and urban people began to look at country folk as weird – dangerous, even – Maine became a scarier place, Doiron said. Here, down long dirt roads, alongside the roaring ocean or amid expanses of forest, “if you want to cry out for help, nobody is going to hear you.”
Combined, the two phenomena transformed Maine in the national consciousness. The state lost its innocence.
Gerry Boyle, creator of the Jack McMorrow and Blandon Blake mysteries, thinks Maine makes a good setting for crime novels because people are less hardened to it here. Our crime rate is among the lowest in the nation. When it happens, it’s dramatic and traumatic, and tears apart communities.
“If there is murder in your town, you know the person and very likely you know the perpetrator,” said Boyle, who lives in a small town in central Maine. “Crime hits home here in a way it might not in other more populated, bigger places. It gets your attention and it frightens you more.”
Islandport Press will release the 10th Jack McMorrow mystery, “Once Burned” about an arson, in spring 2015.
Boyle gets ideas for his stories from the newspaper. He’s a former cops reporter for the Central Maine Morning Sentinel and was fascinated by the fine line between people who obeyed the rules and those who did not. Years of reporting and researching crimes make him think that “people who commit crimes are just like us, except they commit crimes.”
“The same person who might break into your house also might be the person who would stop and help you if you had a flat on the side of the road,” he said.
Maine Crime Wave will take place at Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
The workshop will feature several Maine writers, including Julia Spencer-Fleming and Kate Flora, as well as literary agents, publishers and real-life police, who will help writers get their investigative details straight in a session called “The Real Joe Friday.”
Anyone can attend, and authors will be available to sign their books. But most of the sessions target writers with subjects about building a “killer” plot and the business of writing.
Bodwell said his group intends to expand Maine Crime Wave next year to include readers, librarians and booksellers, so it more resembles a book fair or festival than a conference. It’s important for the alliance to respond to the desires of all people interested in books and literature, he said, noting that interest in the genre is ascending. Some people think that crime writing is a lesser genre, but Bodwell think it’s worth celebrating.
Bodwell got hooked on mysteries as a boy through the Hardy Boys, a series for children and teens. His dad passed the books down to him, and Bodwell has done the same with his daughter.
Mysteries are a literary rite of passage. If not the Hardy Boys, kids often start with Nancy Drew mysteries and graduate to Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie novels. From there, they move to science fiction and the classics.
Adult readers like mysteries because they are entertaining, thrilling and suspenseful, and they usually are fairly light reading. There’s not a lot of soul nourishment in most modern thrillers, Bodwell noted. But they are sophisticated, and a proven opportunity for writers to find their creative voice and build careers.
Spencer-Fleming, a panelist who lives in Buxton, moved to Maine in 1987 and enrolled at the University of Maine School of Law. She began writing in the late 1990s, after she became a mom. She has written several mysteries set in the Adirondacks of New York and has won national awards. Her next book is due in spring 2015.
Rural New York is similar to rural Maine in climate, economy and politics. “What I write about are the troubles of a very small town, and everything in Maine is very small town,” she said.
The dynamics of small-town living are ripe for crime writing, said Kate Flora, who grew up in Union, lives most of the year on Bailey Island in Harpswell and writes true crime and police procedurals.
“You know people’s stories and you know people’s histories,” she said. “You drive down the road and there is the familiar. And there are secrets and dark stories that lie behind that.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: