Jen 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 girl 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.
Afterward, 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:
Jen 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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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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.
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.
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.
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?
Welcome to Maine Crime Writers, Jen. I am so interested to read about Mary C. Jane and will check those books out.
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.
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!
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.
As an Aroostook County woman I must say it is still a magical place.
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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Thanks for this, Jen! Mary C. Jane was a most familiar name from my childhood, and I was THRILLED when I found her books had been translated into Kindle editions! I immediately bought most of them and re-read them with great pleasure (need I add that I still have the paperback copies bought from Scholastic Book Club when I was young?) I especially love MYSTERY BY MOONLIGHT, since her heroine, Gail, wants to be a writer. (I love that you yourself considered being a jewel thief!)
Thanks for taking the time to write about her; wish you had put in a photo of her; have no idea what she looked like!
Thank you Jen for this post. I discovered Mary C. Jane books when I was 12 years old in the 6th grade. (1976). The first Mary c. Jane book I ever read was Mystery on Nine Mile Marsh. The story of Pedro broke my heart.
It was Mary C. Jane who inspired me to write. I have never had any major publishing’s only local newspaper feature columns, but I still love to write. I’m a pastor now and the art of telling a good story has come in handy over the years.
I have most of Mary’s mystery books and I still from time to time read them. Mostly I like to sit in my office on a cold winter’s day and get lost in my childhood with one.
Thank you again for posting your story. When I was a kid I always wanted to meet Mary and thank her for her stories.
Thank you for this insight. I read The mystery of the red carnations in Elementary school in the early 80’s. I thought perhaps Mary C Jane was a fictitious pseudonym for a collection of ghost writers like the hardyboys/nancy drew books. It’s cool to know that she was a real person that impacted people’s lives positively
Dear Jen blood: Thanks for a great article on one of my favorite authors, Mary C Jane. I’ve managed to collect all her (now out of print) books from ABEbooks.com. Every few years I get them out and read them all in publication order. They’re still as magic now as they were when I was a boy. What authors got me interested in reading besides Mary? Laura Ingalls Wilder, of course because her stories were similar to those of my mother who traveled by covered wagon from Nebraska to South Dakota, to Kansas, and finally to Colorado … forty years after Little House on the Prairie. But the favorite author of my childhood (and even now) was an obscure writer from Ayr, Scotland, Elisabeth Kyle (real name Agnes Mary Robertson Dunlop) who wrote (among many others) Lost Karen. That children’s mystery made me a lover of mysteries for life. I hope Mary C Jane and Elisabeth Kyle are never forgotten. They won’t be by anyone who’s ever read them.
It was 1969 when I first became acquainted with Mary C. Jane, through a selection from the Scholastic Book Club, called Mystery on Nine-Mile Marsh. I was in 5th grade at the time and loved the book, but sadly never read any of her other titles. But I never forgot that book. And for some reason, while piddling around on my iPad, I googled the book title and read the sample chapters. I was amazed by how good the writing was and bought the book on my Kindle app. Growing up and living in Southern California, I’d say the Maine setting was appealing.
I discovered mysteries as a child in Australia in the 1980’s, via second hand Scholastic paperbacks. One of my first was ‘Mystery Back of the Mountain’.
I ADORED these books and more than thirty years later am an avowed mysteryphile, who still loves her simple Scholastics. With Mary C. Jane at the top of the list!
I have never heard of these but just downloaded several to enjoy on my Kindle app. They should make for a great escape from all the bad news we are dealing with in the world right now. I grew up with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and a non-mystery series about a character named Betsy Ray by Maud Hart Lovelace set in turn of the 20th Century. I also tore through all of the Agatha Christies I could get my hands on. How fun to find these later in life and to get to read them for the first time!
I am 63 and have read several of Mary C. Jane’s books that were printed by Scholastic. Loved those books. I wish OpenLibrary.org had more of them for the public to read. I am really surprised how few they have. I still like to read her books, even at the age of 63. Just takes me back to when I was a kid living on a farm.
Just read The Ghost Rock Mystery and loved it. I have a penchant for the books with “mystery” in the title that were offered through the Scholastic Book Club in the mid-1970s. I started kindergarten in 1974, so I was shown that Scholastic flyer from 1975 through 1981. I picked up a bunch at a used book fair in Phoenix Arizona earlier this year and found Mary’s novel.
I still have my copy of “Mystery by Moonlight.” I read and reread it more times than I can count. Owning a book was rare for me as a child, and it was one of my most precious possessions.
Born in 1959, grew up knowing more about my mother’s native Portland Maine than my local SE Mass. town and being dyslexic, Mary C. Jane’s books were the instrument that provided me with the want to read and not be ashamed of my being different than other readers. May her efforts never be forgotten.
I read my first Mary C. Jane mystery in Catholic elementary school during the late 60s and early 70s, in southeastern Massachusetts. I fell in love with Mystery at Pemaquid Point and I still pick it up and read it today. I loved the imagery and wonderful characters, and the beautiful story as it developed throughout. It is my favorite of hers. As it did for you, it brings me back to a simpler time, before digital gadgetry. I searched out and acquired a couple other works of hers as well, but Pemaquid is still my favorite. Since then, I’ve always wanted to visit that point in Maine; haven’t got there yet!
In 1956 I belonged to the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club, and received Mary C. Jane’s book, ‘Mystery in Old Quebec.’ I treasure these children’s books that are evocative of a simpler time. I, too, relish re-reading these charming tales as a refreshing and calming journey away from the complexity of modern life. Thank you Mary C. Jane for bringing old Quebec to life so vividly.
I,, too, got Mystery in Old Quebec from the Weekly Reader Book Club as a child. Decades later, I had gotten away from me, so I found it on a used book website and ordered it. At 76 now, I still re-read it every few years, and love it.
I devoured the Mary C. Jane books as a kid, and found one at a book fair a couple years ago…they came rushing back. I saw the title Mystery of Pemaquid Point and instantly remembered the shock of discovery of the fire-setting culprit. Hadn’t seen that coming!!!! I have since found a number of them on eBay…just treated myself to a lovely copy of Nine Mile Marsh. Thank you for this (now almostdecade-old ) memory.
I’m a big Mary C. Jane fan and always well be. I began collecting her books twenty years ago and have managed to get them all, except “The Rocking Chair Ghost” which was written for a much younger audience. Some of the ones I have are in nice hard back editions in fine dust jackets and some are like new paper backs. They are becoming increasingly difficult to find in any condition. I wish that some company like Applewood Books or Bethlehem Books would make them available in re-issue editions. These stories are too wonderful not to be shared. Don Elarton