by Barb, enjoying an amazing run of good weather in Boothbay Harbor, Maine (and thinking of those less fortunate in Texas)
There is one central challenge facing the author of mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth. Why does the sleuth get involved? What are the stakes, and why does she (or he) keep going, even when the situation becomes threatening or even dangerous?
A reason authors sometimes use is that the local constabulary are incompetent or foolish. Or they are aloof out-of-towners who look down on the residents and ignore their insider knowledge. (This might apply equally to the state police who investigate most murders here in Maine or to Scotland Yard.)
I’ve tried not to use either of these explanations for my amateur sleuth Julia Snowden’s involvement in her murder cases. It seems like a lazy dodge to me. And, it’s just not my experience. Whenever we’ve had to call the local police here in Boothbay Harbor, they’ve been responsive, polite, and diligent in their duties.
We’ve called the police twice this summer, highly unusual. And, embarrassingly for us, both times have been sort of ridiculous.
The first time was when my daughter and her husband arrived shortly after midnight on a Friday. There was as strange car in the driveway and all the lights were off in the house. They knew Bill and I were back home in Boston. Kate called us and explained the situation. Bill told her to go inside, but I said, “Call the police.”
A bit of background. When you have a seasonal house, by definition it’s empty for some of the year. And most people lend the house out to friends and family, as we do. Our house was Bill’s mother’s before it was ours, and some people still regard it as a family home. It’s not unheard of for them to offer it to others, and while this has never happened without people communicating with us, it’s not unimaginable.
When we had our cottage on a lake in Marlboro, Massachusetts we had a weird incident. One March Sunday morning a neighbor called us. Bill and I were in Key West visiting my parents. The neighbor, who lived at the lake year-round, asked if we were aware that our niece had spent the weekend at the cottage with her boyfriend. He’d confronted her and she claimed she had permission.
She certainly didn’t. It was a seasonal cottage. The water was turned off and the only heat source was a wood stove. After a brief discussion about whether to rat out our high school-aged niece, we decided to rely on the Parent Principle–i.e. would we have wanted someone to call us in the same situation? Hell, yes. So we called Bill’s brother with the bad news.
He said, “She’s upstairs asleep.” We said, “Are you sure?” He said, “Her car’s in the driveway. I’ll go check.” Sure enough, our niece was sound asleep. Who was at the cottage? She had a suspicion, and it turned out she was right. It was a friend of hers who had legitimately visited the cottage when Bill’s brother and his family were using it. She’d gone back with her boyfriend and helped herself.
So you can see why our daughter, faced with a strange car in our driveway, was a little hesitant to go inside. She called the police who arrived within minutes, as they often do when you live downtown. They ran the license plate of the car and it turned out to be a neighbor’s. They’d had a party and parked in our driveway and forgot to move their car after the party ended. They arrived the next day bearing homemade jam and profuse apologies.
The officer was nice about the whole thing, and insisted on accompanying our kids into the house. When they got in, an alarm was going off, which the policeman instantly recognized as a sump pump and he ran down to the basement and turned the alarm off. Full service!
The second time was just this week. Bill was reading in bed and I was watching TV when the whole house was plunged into darkness. This isn’t unusual when you live on a peninsula. The lights came on again so quickly I didn’t get to the window fast enough to see if it was just our house or also our neighbors. I did notice that when the lights came back on, the stair climber that we had installed for my mother-in-law beeped three times, and the printer at the bottom of the stairs started up.
Then, in the middle of the night, Bill and I were both awakened from a deep sleep by a beep-beep-beep and Bill’s phone coming to life on a nearby charger. Bill jumped out of bed and ran to the bedroom door. “There’s someone in the house,” he yelled, and closed and locked the door. “Call 911.” So we did. We were still on the line with them when I managed to groggily say, “Maybe what you heard was the printer.” By that point the police were here with flashlights, checking all the doors and windows for a break-in. When they found no sign of one, Bill squared his shoulders and went down to confess our mistake.
Again, the police were really nice about the whole thing. It was the same guy who’d come out for the whole strange-car-in-the-driveway incident earlier in the summer. If he was laughing, he kept it to himself until we were out of earshot.
Like many small town police forces, the Boothbay Harbor police cope with a lot, including a town that’s full of empty houses nine months a year, a population that swells in size every summer, people from all over the world passing through, and the continuing ravages of the opioid epidemic. They do it well, and it doesn’t feel right to me to malign their efforts, even in the service of fiction.
And I haven’t even told you about the time we were really broken into and really burglared, which I’ll save for another day.
Readers: Have you ever made an embarrassing call to the police? Let us know in the comments.