Katherine Hall Page: Even though I am now living in Maine over four months each year and my first visit was in 1951, we all know that just because a cat has kittens in an oven, doesn’t make them biscuits. But in my mind, Maine is home. I plan to be here a very long time since my parents are buried in Deer Isle and there’s plenty of room in the plot for the rest of us.
Thanks to Googling the Disney film, “Alice in Wonderland” I can pinpoint the exact date when I crossed the border after a long “Are We There Yet” drive from New Jersey. My parents had been camp counselors in Cooper’s Mills before the war and there was little question that for them, Maine was indeed “the Way Life Should Be”, despite their affection for the Garden State where they grew up, as did I. “Alice” was released July 26th. Dad took a whole week for our vacation and I’m realizing that due to school, jobs and the war, it must have been his first real one. We boarded with Alberta Jackson in her farmhouse on a small pond in Readfield where fellow camp counselor friends lived. Possibly Miss Jackson provided the meals, which would have been the only incentive my mother needed. With the arrival of my sister in 1950, joining my older brother and me in the middle, Mom once told me that she burst into tears early on at the thought of how many meals for five she’d have to drum up until the nest was empty. That all three of her offspring love to cook is no accident. It was sometimes a necessity— and no hardship. Mom’s paintings were much more important than any culinary achievements.
One hot day during our Readfield stay, my father took my brother and me to the movies in the big city—nearby Augusta. The novelty of a movie theater was special enough. I’d never been to one. I can recall small details—scratchy velvet seats, the smell of popcorn—but it was the glorious color of the film itself and characters come to life that have stayed with me more than anything else. It’s not too fanciful to imagine that when we returned to the house, I saw the Cheshire Cat in every tree and believed I might come across the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Miss Jackson’s woods.
While I was writing The Body in the Casket, I came back to this memory. There is nothing to equal the magic that takes words on a page and transforms them into flesh and blood images be they on a screen or on a stage. Or the excitement. We cringe now at Mickey Rooney’s hackneyed phrase, “Hey, Gang! Let’s put on a show!” but think of all the orphanages—fill in a host of other causes—he and Judy saved in those films. Think of your own first theatrical experience—in the audience or on the stage. At camp, in school—we all recognize that tingly feeling before the curtain went up.
I wish I had the Playbill from the very first Broadway production I saw: Gertrude Lawrence, the famous British actress, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, a matinee in 1952. The musical, which opened in 1951, had taken Broadway by storm. Rex Harrison turned down the role of the king and Yul Brynner, who would forever be associated with it, was cast. I was quite a little girl, but remember the two of them whirling about the stage to “Shall We Dance”, Lawrence’s hoop-skirted silk gown shimmering brightly in the spotlight. The other memory that is still so clear all these years later is of the vibrant colors—the costumes and the sets. The songs must have made an impression as well, but so many were hits that I can’t be sure whether I am recalling the original experience or the repetitions, (Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s “song” while courting was “People Will Think We’re in Love”!).
On Deer Isle, we have the Stonington Opera House—originally built in 1912—a performance hall like so many others in small Maine communities that hosted travelling performers, but also doubled as basketball courts, skating rinks, town meeting hall and more. Finding something to do, or see, in Maine has never been a problem. Deer Isle’s Cabin Fever Players delivers Tony-Award worthy productions and you don’t have to know someone to play a role. Well, this could be because everyone already knows everybody. But it’s all about the community.
In The Body in the Casket I was able to combine two of my favorite things: performances and country house mysteries. Faith Fairchild is asked to cater a 70th birthday weekend long party for legendary Broadway producer, Max Dane. The twist is that Max hasn’t ventured out of his secluded mansion near Faith’s Aleford, Massachusetts since his colossal failure: Heaven or Hell The Musical. When she meets with him for a tour of the premises and menu discussion, he tells her that although he is sure she is an expert chef, he is hiring her for her “sleuthing abilities”. She can’t resist the job, especially when she learns all the guests were involved in the show either as actors or behind the scenes. Max is sure one of them wants him dead and he has an early, macabre, birthday gift to prove it.
Maine has its share of mansions, or “cottages”, that make for great country house murder settings. All the ones we can see and all those that we cannot with the stone pillars and “Keep Out” signs on MDI and other spots. In Casket, I of course had to throw in a power outage—really should have set this book in Maine—and an unexpected guest. There are recipes, all referencing heaven or hell dishes, at the end since hard-to-believe, not everyone is interested in the food!
One final note: when reading the book those of you who are film buffs may recognize several that informed the writing of this book: The Wrong Box (1966), Sleuth (1972 version), Deathtrap (1982), Clue (1985), and especially Murder By Death (1976). These also explain why Max Dane and Michael Caine became one in my imagination.
Katherine Hall Page is the author of twenty-three previous Faith Fairchild mysteries. The recipient of Malice Domestic’s Lifetime Achievement Award, she has received Agathas for best first mystery (The Body in the Belfry), best novel (The Body in the Snowdrift), and best short story, (“The Would-Be Widower”). She has also been nominated for the Edgar, the Mary Higgins Clark, the Macavity, and the Maine Literary Award. She lives in Massachusetts and Maine with her husband.
Sounds like a great read, Katherine. It’s on my to-buy list. And I love the story of your first visit to Maine. What wonderful memories
Welcome back to Maine Crime Writers, Katherine. I am so looking forward to reading The Body in the Casket–which seems like the appropriate place!
It was lovely thinking back to that summer and I was surprised by how much I remembered beside the movie. Some years ago we took my mother to Readfield to see if we could find the house. Found our friends’, but not Miss Jackson’s.