A Look Back at the Maine Mysteries of Mary C. Jane

JenBloodHeadshot2SmallColorJen Blood is our guest today, blogging about a Maine crime writer many people have forgotten.

Mary C. Jane’s books tell of the Maine of yesterday—rural farms and northern towns, the days of general stores and country doctors and mysteries with pedestrian endings solved by children who have never heard of iPhones or podcasts, the Internet or video games or TVs with a thousand channels.

When I was a kid, these books were my first introduction to mysteries. Mary C. Jane grew up with my great grandmother—she and her sister Nellie, in particular, feature in a dozen black and white photos taken over the years and now archived in our family albums. Mary is perpetually serious in the pictures, often intense, while her sister Nell has a perpetual gleam in her eye, a look as if she’s about to burst into laughter or whisper a secret she’s been keeping.

As Mary got older and embarked on her career as an author, she would send new books to my mom and my aunts and uncles with each release. From 1950 to 1972, she wrote and published more than a dozen mysteries for children, most of them set in Maine. I’ve inherited a copy of almost all of them at this point, each one inscribed in Mary’s neatly flowing script, to various members of the family.

The Mystery at Dead End Farm – my favorite when I was growing up – tells the story of a Portland girlmcjfarm named Priscilla and her brother Lee, visiting their uncle’s Aroostook County potato farm with their widowed mother. When Priscilla and Lee join forces with their cousin, they learn that their eccentric Swedish neighbor Nils has gone missing. Nils is working on a potato-picking invention, and there’s rumor that he has a lead mine on his property that once belonged to the Native Americans (Indians, in those days) who lived in the area. There’s a subplot involving a crashed airplane, and another one involving a white deer the kids want to trap and tame in order to protect it from hunters.

The mystery is solved in 120 pages, complete with illustrations by Raymond Abel of clean-cut boys and girls lurking on hillsides and creeping through abandoned tunnels. In the end (spoiler alert!) Nils returns from having sold his potato-picking invention, and signs over any profits from the lead mine to the local tribe. Priscilla and Lee wind up staying on the farm when they learn their mother and Uncle Ted – their dead father’s brother – have become an item. The final pages are filled with simple resolutions and blueberry pie, as Priscilla ponders the lessons she’s learned.

Mary’s love for both Maine and its people – particularly the children – comes through clearly in her books. On the final page of Dead End Farm, Priscilla ponders the landscape as the family discusses the future of the white deer the kids found in their travels.

She turned her eyes to the rolling potato fields, high, wide, and windswept under the arching sky. What a free kind of country Aroostook was! It didn’t seem right, here, to keep anything – even a deer – penned up and a prisoner…

“It’s wonderful to be safe,” she said, “but it’s even more wonderful to be free. I think we should let the white deer go.”

When I was in third grade, I wrote to Mary and asked if she would speak to my class. I was a shy, pudgy kid with glasses, vacillating between becoming a writer, a jewel thief, or a veterinarian. I had already read every book Mary had written, burning through a mystery a day, and had even convinced our teacher to read one aloud to the class. Mary wrote back, agreeing with great enthusiasm to join us for an afternoon.

Mary and GramAfterward, I was allowed to leave school early to have lunch at home with Mary and my great grandmother. I remember their laughter and the stories they told, Mary’s generosity, and what a keen interest she seemed to take in my own writing. It was the only time we ever met, though we exchanged letters for many years after that. When I started writing poetry and submitting my work to competitions in high school, she weighed in with tips, critiques, and encouragement, in letters I still have today.

Mary’s books can still be found in libraries throughout Maine, her prose and Raymond Abel’s illustrations a reminder of a simpler time. What I find comforting, however, is that while the world has unquestionably sped up and gotten a little more complicated, in many ways Maine’s quiet back roads and rural country charm remain the same. We still rely on our neighbors; we still cherish our quiet spaces; we still believe freedom to go our own way and march to our own drummer is the best way to live.

If you haven’t checked out Mary C. Jane’s mysteries, I recommend taking a look for yourself. She remains a favorite of mine, even now. Is there a series or author that got you interested in reading when you were young? I’d love to hear about the books that first got you hooked on mysteries!

 

Jen Blood Bio:

The Book Of J6 B SmallJen is author of the bestselling Maine-based Erin Solomon mysteries, a five-book series telling the story of investigative reporter Erin Solomon as she strives to solve the mystery of an alleged cult suicide she witnessed off the coast of Maine as a child. The final book in the series, The Book of J., was published in February. Jen holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine, and has worked as a freelance journalist for magazines and newspapers from Maine to Oregon. She currently lives in the midcoast, where she runs Adian Editing, providing expert editing of plot-driven fiction for authors around the world. Her next novel, Midnight Lullaby, will be out in June.

About MCWriTers

Kate Flora is the author or co-author of fifteen books, including her Joe Burgess police procedural series, her Thea Kozak series, two true crimes, a stand-alone suspense and a memoir, as well as many short stories. Her books have been Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Derringer finalists. She’s twice won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction and won the 2015 Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction. She divides her time between Maine and Massachusetts. Flora is a former international president of Sisters in Crime.
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15 Responses to A Look Back at the Maine Mysteries of Mary C. Jane

  1. Monica says:

    Thanks for this. I’d never heard of this author.

    I cut my mystery teeth on Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls and the Hardy Boys. Then, when allowed into the adult library at 13, I went straight for the rabbi series and Ed McBain.

    • Jen Blood says:

      Thanks for the reply, Monica! I was an avid reader of both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, though I never read the Dana Girls — my other go-to at that age was Trixie Belden, a series I still love today. And of course Ed McBain remains a favorite!

  2. Welcome, Jen. Jumping up and down and saying yes, I’ve read Mary C. Jane. My absolute favorite author, though, was Claire Blank, who wrote a series about Beverly Gray, who went through four years of college in the first four books and then started a career as a newspaper reporter and playwright, solving mysteries along the way. The books were written and set in the 1930s and 40s and I was reading them in the 1950s, along with all the other girls’ series of that era, but these stood out for me, both as a reader and as a future writer.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn

    • Jen Blood says:

      Thanks for the warm welcome, Kathy! Glad to hear you’d read Mary C Jane. I haven’t heard of the Beverly Gray series — I’ll have to look for it, it sounds like it’s right up my alley. I love going back to those types of books now, there’s something so comforting about them!

      – Jen

  3. Pingback: Guest Post at Maine Crime Writers | Jen Blood

  4. What a wonderful look back in time and a visit to the Mary C. Jane books. I discovered her books when I took over the 7th grade language arts classroom in Thomaston (following our own Kate Flora’s mom, Arley Clark). I think there were 5 books with those wonderful, simple illustrations. Jen, thanks so much for sharing all this.

    • Jen Blood says:

      Thanks, Susan! I didn’t realize Kate’s mom taught there, too — you filled her shoes admirably! I still remember so many of the books you introduced us to in that class. Mary’s mysteries came earlier for me, but I think I recall them being in the mix at Thomaston Grammar, as well. It’s amazing how those early reads can stick with you over time.

  5. Maureen Milliken says:

    Thanks so much for reminding me how much I loved Mary C. Jane as a kid. She was one of my major introductions to mysteries, too. We didn’t even live in Maine at the time, but I think her books are one of the things that cemented Maine in my mind as the best place for mysteries. And, of course, we all know that’s true.

    • Jen Blood says:

      Thanks for your reply, Maureen. I love to hear of people outside Maine having read Mary’s work — her books really did encapsulate so much of what it felt like to grow up around here. I like the idea of others having the same experience. And, of course, you’re right about the Maine-Mystery tie-in. Who does dark-and-stormy better than we Mainers?

  6. Barb Ross says:

    Welcome to Maine Crime Writers, Jen. I am so interested to read about Mary C. Jane and will check those books out.

    • Jen Blood says:

      Thanks, Barb — it’s great to be here. Your books have such a distinct Maine flavor that I think you’d appreciate Mary’s work. They’re a lot of fun, if you do find yourself with a little extra time to check them out one day.

  7. Lea Wait says:

    Adding a welcome, Jen … and memories of Mary C Jane’s books. I suspect we may still have a couple of her paperbacks in our attic. I must check them out again!

    • Jen Blood says:

      Thanks for the warm welcome, Lea — everyone here is so friendly! Yes, at this point my basement is just a treasure trove of boxed books I’d forgotten all about. It’s fun to pull them out every so often — I always feel like I’m getting reacquainted with old friends.

  8. kait carson says:

    As an Aroostook County woman I must say it is still a magical place.

  9. Jane says:

    I loved Mary C. Jane’s mysteries when I was a child. But I don’t think I really realized that they were set it Maine. I’m from clear across the country (Washington State), but there were a lot of similarities to the area I grew up in. Thanks for the trip back in time!

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