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The Sirens of Suspense

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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The Body in the Wardrobe is the 23rd in Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Fairchild series. She has also published for middle grade and YA readers as well as a collection of short stories, Small Plates (2014), and a series cookbook, Have Faith in your Kitchen (Orchises Press). She has been awarded Agathas for Best First, Best Novel, and Best SS and also was nominated for additional Agathas, an Edgar, Macavity, Mary Higgins Clark and the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She is the recipient of Malice Domestic 28th’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in Maine and Massachusetts.

 

Find Katherine on Facebook.

www.katherine-hall-page.org/

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First, how lovely to be able to write about anything. The guideline that we please not summarize the book, characters, etc. evoked a huge sigh of relief. I’m fond of this book, and all the others, but really do not like to talk about them much. And the suggestion that we might write about an obsession—how freeing is that! My compulsion to eavesdrop immediately came to mind—one hears amazing things from the stall in the ladies, on the subway, and always in restaurants, especially those with booths. What else? I don’t really collect anything, unless you count books. I do, though, own an interesting file of photos I have taken of single gloves in odd places—tangled in seaweed, suspended from a faucet, and once a black leather one grimly lying in a field of wildflowers.

Yet the choice of subject was clear from the beginning.

I like cemeteries. My predilection has nothing to do with an obsession with death, although Edward Gorey has long been my favorite and I regularly peruse the best book for funeral baked meats and funeral customs: Food to Die For A Book of Funeral Food, Tips and Tales compiled by the Old City Cemetery Southern Memorial Association in Lynchburg, Virginia. No, it’s because I simply like to wander among the tombstones. I don’t do rubbings or anything at all remotely active. Just wander and try to decipher what someone hoped would be etched in stone for all eternity.

When I am in a new place—large or small—I find myself searching out where people are planted for good before heading for the sights filled with the living. A small graveyard in the middle of the Maine woods, the headstones tilted, and the names indicating a single family moves me as much as Highgate with Karl Marx in London, Père Lachaise with Jim Morrison in Paris, Bonaventure with Johnny Mercer in Savannah, Georgia or Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Mount Auburn with Margaret Fuller. And these all move me a great deal.

Walking through these places is a bit like eavesdropping and the names, dates, ornamentation or lack thereof conjure up not ghosts, but shades. Barely detected individuals. Hints, some subtle; some not. A favorite epitaph is one I came across on an island off the New England coast. Dating back to the late 1800s, the simple granite stone gave the woman’s name, dates and a single sentence: “She tried her best” One could write an entire novel based on those words!

Mount Auburn cemetery is close to where I live, so I hang out there often. Opened, so to speak, in 1831 it was the first garden cemetery in the United States and reflected the change in attitude on death previously represented by the earlier New England burial grounds. Their stones were embellished with grim images and epitaphs like: “As you are now, so once was I; As I am now, so must you be; prepare for death and follow me.” Words to live by? Mount Auburn was planned as a place of repose—cemetery comes from the Greek, koimeterion, which means “place of sleep” —and a place of beauty, famous then and now for the landscaping, rare trees and shrubs as well as those native to New England. It’s a bird lover’s paradise. While I’m relatively accurate at identifying a robin, male cardinal, and even the elusive Baltimore oriole, I’m more interested in the who, not the whooo (owls of all sorts add a nice touch of melancholy here). There are the famous, the infamous, not famous at all and some are people I have known. A few relatives, although we recently learned that my great great grandmother literally passed through, was cremated and shipped to a family plot in New Hampshire according to Mt. Auburn’s exhaustive records and not planted in Halcyon Avenue by Halcyon Lake as thought.

Making up one’s own stories—it’s not as if they can be contradicted—is a pleasant memorial occupation, but some stories are already firmly in place and it is not too fanciful to feel the reverberations when standing by one of these graves. Savannah’s Bonaventure is filled with them—people are sure they have seen tears running down the statue of six-year-old Little Gracie Watson who died in 1889.

Bonaventure looks the way I think a graveyard should. Mount Auburn abloom in spring is all well and good, but “well” is the operative word here. I want “unwell”, lots of Spanish moss and the paths a mix of crushed oyster shells and sand, deathly pale beneath my feet. The poet/novelist Conrad Aiken and his wife are buried in Bonaventure and even if you have never read “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” or knew that Aiken at age eleven heard shots in the house and discovered his father in a fit of madness had killed his wife and then himself, you will sense it. His parents lie in the same plot. Years later the writer returned to his beloved Savannah to live out his days in the house next to his boyhood home on Oglethorpe Street. He designed his own memorial. The tombstone is a large bench inscribed on one side with the words, “GIVE MY LOVE TO THE WORLD” and on the other, “COSMOS MARINER DESTINATION UNKNOWN”. Conrad Aiken hoped people would bring a shaker of martinis, his favorite tipple, to enjoy while seated and they do.

Now this is what I call a perfect ending.

 

 

WHAT'S THE ONE PLACE YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO VISIT? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of BODY IN THE BIRCHES! (US entrants only, please.)

 

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