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Murder Among Friends

Our Book Discussion on: "Murder at Mullings" by Dorothy Cannell

Dorothy Cannell at home in Maine

Lady Stodmarsh herself could not be more gracious than author Dorothy Cannell was in calling in to join the discussion of this novel. (The first Lady Stodmarsh that is!) Murder at Mullings is the first in a new series for Dorothy. We partook some fresh-baked scones (standing in for “rock buns”) as she told us how both this series came to be, and how she began her mystery writing career.

She had been very busy raising four children, but found herself thinking about a career as a writer when they were old enough to be thinking about college. Dorothy gave a lovely example of how random instances can come together in a mystery plot.

She had been trying to come up with a basic plot she thought would be interesting, when she watched a Phil Donahue Show where he featured escort services – not the usual kind!, these companies helped people who needed a date for a particular event by matching them with someone who would be compatible. Dorothy found this intriguing and started thinking about who might use a service like this. She next happened to see an episode of Oprah where she was talking about the pressures and social shunning women who either have a weight issue or are perceived to have one are subjected to today. This gave Dorothy her own “aha” moment and she created a young woman who was professionally successful, but socially looked down on for her weight problem. This young woman needs a date for her rich uncle’s family reunion – which led Dorothy to create Ben Haskell, and the rest is – something you should read in her wonderful first novel The Thin Woman!

After writing the Ellie & Ben series, Dorothy took a brief hiatus, in part, with moving to Maine. During that summer she and her family found sea glass and started referring to the time as their “sea glass summer”. Dorothy used this inspiration for a stand-alone novel called Sea Glass Summer (which the library has!) In it, Sarah Draycott, who has just been through a bitter divorce, moves to picturesque Sea Glass, where she helps a widow cope with her ill son and assists a nine-year-old orphan uncover the secrets surrounding the mysterious Cully Mansion, and soon finds love when she least expects it.

The burning question amongst MAF members however was: “Are ornamental hermits real – and how did you come up with them?” Dorothy laughed, and told us how she and Margaret Maron (another MAF superstar of mystery!) are good friends and their husbands (Julian Cannell and Joe Maron) are also very good friends. The Marons were visiting the Cannells, and Joe mentioned that Dorothy ought to write about the British ornamental hermit. Having never heard of them, she plied Joe for details and found out that these were, in fact, real people who were hired by owners of upper class estates to lend them some mystery or “color” for visitors to the estate.

The “hermit” was usually also a person from the upper classes – usually a dissolute, young man who had run through his money and needed to temporarily at least, evade his creditors. There were very strict rules for the hermit: he had to grow out his hair, nails, and beard. He had to wear a robe and carry a Bible when he was out walking, and he lived in a hut that either existed on the estate or was constructed specifically for him. The family and visitors were not allowed to talk to him – which became an important point for Dorothy is having one in Murder at Mullings. (She also mentioned that Edith Sitwell did essays on them. I found a citation for it in an article:  Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics: a gallery of weird and wonderful men and women, first published in 1933.) In talking further with Dorothy we decided the ornamental hermit is probably the inspiration for today’s garden gnomes! There will be more info/links on the Cast of Characters page for Murder at Mullings.

She also told us something of her writing environment: her basement. Dorothy finds writing in her basement, sometimes using a shelf on the wall, is the best way for her to stay focused on the story. It takes her roughly three to four months for a story to gel (“thinking it, living it”) and she writes about three to five pages a day. She also blogs on a Maine mystery writer blog called Maine Crime Writers, along with authors Kate Flora, Lea Wait, Kaitlyn Dunnett, and Vicki Doudera among others.

The group heartily thanked Dorothy for spending some time with us and answering our questions. Some participants found the opening pace a bit slow, but that “around Chapter 3” it really began to take off – and that the earlier background and time spent setting the scene ended up helping us to appreciate the time period, and the characters more fully. We also enjoyed the different ways she covered parenting and what makes a family. We were pleased to discover that this was a major part of the story to Dorothy as well. She has two adopted children and has a first-hand knowledge of what’s involved in bringing people into a family. Overall, everyone really liked the book.

The second book Death at Dovecote Hatch finds the peaceful little village of Dovecote Hatch is about to be rocked by news of another violent death – and housekeeper Florence Norris suspects foul play. We also got the advanced word on the third book in the series: it is going to be called Peril in the Parrish, it features a new young clergyman, and is due out the end of December.

Death at Dovecote Hatch just arrived on the library’s New Mystery shelf – and it has already been checked out! And check back on this blog -- Murder at Mullings Cast of Characters will be up soon!

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