Monday, October 24, 2011

Joel Brown back with new Libertyport mystery

In downtown Libertyport the other day. You know, that achingly familiar, desperately quaint and picturesque and oh-so-hip New England seaside community? Ran into Joel Brown, the Boston Globe scribbler sidelining, these days, as a crime novelist. He was hanging in Foley’s, the iconic newsstand/coffee shop with the red and green neon sign and the old-time soda fountain, the funky rival the evil corporate bean-roasters just a couple doors down the street. Near, um, the Thirsty Lobster, that "defiant anomaly among the art galleries and boutiques?" Just across the street from the gently curving red-brick blocks of Dock Square, a mixed-use landscape of stores and restaurants on the ground floor and offices or apartments above, with awnings, signs and flower boxes adding color and variety, a public space that “just worked in a way that was hard to explain, like Fenway Park,” as the Port resident writes in "Mermaid Blues," his latest Libertyport mystery. But it doesn't work that well for Joey Durst, the hard-partying, not-so-hard-working son of a local fisherman, who turns up sleeping with the fishes in one of those surprisingly seedy walk-ups above the Whale — I mean, the Lobster.

Not a surprise finding Brown at there. He’s a regular. In the real-life Fowle’s, not the fictional Foley’s, which has been the hub of Brown’s first two murder mysteries  — last year’s “Mirror Ball Man” and now “Mermaid Blues,” which hit the stands a couple of weeks ago. And word is that the real-life coffee shop might not survive for a third installment of Brown’s Libertyport series, seeing how its lease has just about run out and the owners are looking for a “better fit” for their plans to transform the city into a yuppie fortress like Nantucket, according to the local rag. Which is “a horrifying development,” says Brown, who has been living in the city since 1998. “I hope they do the right thing. It will be interesting to see what happens. Maybe nothing will change, maybe ...” And, please don’t tell him this, we’re thinking, Baxter McLean would have a snappier comeback, somewhat sour and world-weary, something well considered and stinging — something easier to do when you’re fictional and the invisible guy pulling the strings has the chance to polish your lines, something Brown does well.

McLean, of course, is the unlikely hero of the Libertyport series. He, like Brown, would prefer to hang at the coffee shop, or at the Rum House, drink a beer and watch the Sox — and, being a fictional kind of guy trapped in a book and locked into publishing deadlines, he’s a little behind the times.  Which is probably not a bad thing, all things considered. He still doesn’t know what will happen to the hometown team. He doesn’t know about the swoon. “Brutal,” says Brown, a lifelong fan who, like the rest of Red Sox Nation, is still licking his wounds in a sadly nostalgic fashion. He’s an unlikely hero because, first, he’s a folkie, a guitar-slinger who has been making a living, barely, putting out records to steadily diminishing acclaim after becoming an accidental one-hit wonder when he released “Mirror Ball Man,” a sardonic farewell to the disco era, which never really went away. He’s also an unlikely hero because he doesn’t act like one. There’s no guy play or car chases or even punch-ups, although he does get banged around from time to time. He “stumbles around talking to people and ends up stepping in it,” says Brown. He’s persistent. Life just confirms his view of the world — over and over. That’s something he gets from his mom, who understands the complexity of life in this small seaside community, where, she says, “nothing is ever forgiven, but it can be temporarily forgotten when they need you for something.” Ouch. And, like all small communities, there are plenty of long-running, deep-seated squabbles.

But things are starting to look up for our hero. Since getting all that publicity six months before this current story begins, when he was first a suspect in the murder of Jules Titward, a local developer who had stirred up a lot of ugly emotions in his bid to build a hotel on the central waterfront, then as the guy who solved the case, McLean has signed on with Dormer Records, an old-school hippie-dippy label taken over by a couple of bored internet millionaires. They’re pulling out all the stops: backing performances, re-releasing his back catalog (whose album titles are hilarious: “Whatever Happened To Me”; “I’m Not Doing This For My Health, You Know”; and “Please Remain Seated Until My Career Comes to a Complete Stop”) while bringing out a new album. He’s also getting lucky romantically, a client with privileges with a Dormer publicist. Plus things are good with his son, and, from time to time, he sometimes believes he might be able to get past the nastiness with his ex. Of course, you know it’s too good to be true.

The story take place during Yankee Homecoming, er, Yankee Old Home Days, “a celebration, a combination class reunion, county fair and tourist magnet,” he writes — one that mostly irritates locals. There’s a mermaid, a shipwreck and a murder. The story centers around a statue in a store window of a mermaid showing all her goods. She is the creation of one of Baxter’s passive-aggressive trust fund layabout friends. Local religious nuts, The New Vision Church of God, specifically, a conservative congregation with a disturbing tendency to vote Republican, which had set up shop in a defunct used-car showroom on Route 1, are worried about its effect on public morals and manners. It’s kind of nutty, right? Yeah, maybe, but who knows? Maybe they’ve got a point, because old Baxter seems a bit wound up by her, judging by his description: “Her dark hair was long and lustrous, her breasts full and high, her finned tail green and shiny.” Oh, baby! “Her eyes followed mine … there was something familiar about her, as if we knew each other in a previous life. She smiled slightly, remembering.” And there is something familiar about her, the mermaid. You may remember the fuss about a saucy mermaid in a storefront downtown a few years ago. Brown doesn’t remember, but he did scribble “protest against mermaid in window” in a notebook five years ago. It was one of the  “pieces of reality” he had accumulated while trying to sell his “Mirror Ball Man” manuscript, a long story that we first discussed here. There was the story about a shipwreck he had written for the Globe. But it all came together with the Homecoming theme of “our maritime history.”

A couple of the characters from “Mirror Ball Man” make cameos, like Davey Gillis, the owner of the Rum House, a Grog-like watering hole; Kit Bragg, the caustic, in-your-face lesbian folk-singer with full sleeve tats on both arms. And, of course, Abigail Marks, the former English teacher turned savage blogger, who is ready to destroy people in print without the slightest concern for … well, anything. She got worked over pretty good in the first book, and has another close brush with death in the latest installment. “She’s my Kenny,” Brown says, referring to Kenny McCormack, the South Park character who was routinely killed off in each episode of the first five seasons of the Comedy Central series. The recurring characters give a sense of community, like cantankerous Dr. Hazlitt and insufferably slutty realtor Eve Simpson, do in Cabot Cove, Maine — a quaint coastal community that, like it or not, is on Brown’s mind as he starts thinking about the next installment. He doesn’t want to have the bodies piling up absurdly high — the “Murder, She Wrote” effect, he calls it, where Jessica Fletcher, like Abigail a retired high school English teacher, but with a moral compass, who has 111 friends, all of whom are murdered over the course of 13 seasons. So the body count’s up a bit — something that could never happen in “our happy little town,” as one of Brown’s readers told him during a recent talk. Of course, this happened just three days after a kid got knifed in an alley near the library, weeks after the mess at Salisbury Police Department, with the chief allegedly trading drugs and cash for sexual favors, and, right around the same time the owner of a Chinese restaurant down the road is found tied up and murdered.  “They’re not exactly dropping like flies,” he says, “but the fact is bad things do happen in good places.”

And, despite the easy-to-envision literary landscape, with its rough-and-tumble locals, forced to play nice with the artists and hippies, with everybody eyeing the others suspiciously, this is not a secret coded history of our community. It’s fiction — fun because it’s so familiar, but all of the “shady characters and nefarious deeds,” Brown writes, “are entirely the product is of my twisted imagination.” The story is “about characters as much as everything else,” he says. “All of the people in this world are true to the place where we all live.”

"Mermaid Blues" can be purchased at most local bookstores or through

1 comment:

  1. love the write up. white on black is hard to read on my eyes. tho.

    xo Tob