By Brenda Buchanan
Last week when I was speaking about my debut murder mystery Quick Pivot at the Portland Public Library, a reader observed that there are an awful lot of Maine crime writers, despite our state’s enviable place at the low-end of the crime statistical graphs. He’s right, of course. We don’t write what we know, we write what we imagine. And, oh, what terrifying imaginations we have.
An arsonist has several people in his sights in Gerry Boyle’s Once Burned. There’s unexplained death and plenty of bad motives in Maureen Milliken’s to-be-released-this-week debut Cold, Hard News. Sarah Graves knocks people off in spectacular fashion in her newest, Winter at the Door. And in a couple of weeks Mike Bowditch fans will be caught up in a story about murder in the spooky woods of the AT when Paul Doiron’s latest, The Precipice, is released.
The litany of names that kill on the page goes on from there. Flora (big shout out to Kate for her second Maine Literary Award for And Grant You Peace.) Emerson/Dunnett. Holm. Hayman. Wait. Cannell. Lynds. Hardacker. Page. Corrigan. Gerritsen. Spencer-Fleming. Vaughan. Clark. Lamanda. Ross. The most diabolical plotter of all, Mr. Stephen King. And on, and on.
Considering how much we write about it, Maine isn’t a murderous place. We’re down there at the bottom of the statistical heap along with Vermont and New Hampshire, all three Northern New England states having annual murder rates in the range of 1.6 to 1.8 per 100,000 people. This compares to a national average of about 4.7 per 100,000 people.
But sometimes murder does come home to Maine, and it always is shocking.
Last week a young man—only 19 years old—was shot to death in Portland. The killing happened late on Memorial Day, a block and a half from my office in the heart of the Old Port. When I arrived at work Tuesday morning, police cruisers blocked Market Street from Exchange to Commercial. Yellow crime scene tape was everywhere.
After a week of vigils, Treyjon Arsenault’s funeral was held Monday in Scarborough. Police haven’t made an arrest yet. The pressure on them is immense to get it right, to make sure the evidence will support a conviction.
Most of our murders are solved—sometimes by the kind of extraordinary police work recounted in the Edgar-nominated true crime book Finding Amy, co-authored by former Portland Deputy Police Chief Joseph Loughlin and the aforementioned Kate Flora—though occasionally they are not. The tragic case of 20-month old Ayla Reynolds, the Waterville toddler who has been missing since December, 2011, comes first to mind.
A high percentage of murders in Maine are tied to domestic violence. A growing number are drug-connected. Those two particular epidemics are as prevalent here as they are across the country.
But in the scheme of things, we live in a tremendously safe place. There’s plenty of petty crime. There’s a fair amount of stupid crime. Sometimes there’s even hilarious crime. But there’s not a lot of serious crime, and in that, we are fortunate.
It is my belief that crime novels serve an important and cathartic purpose in our society. Most of the time at least, our stories end with resolution. Moral dilemmas are resolved. Bad guys are caught. Order is restored. It would be good if this were the case in the real world.
So why are there so many Maine writers plotting dark deeds in our novels? I have no explanation, but welcome your thoughts in the comments.