Yeah, Baxter McLean will be back, this time our unlikely folk-singing sleuth getting tangled up in the messy revolutionary politics of the 1970s, specifically the so-called United Freedom Front, which, in 1976, decided that bombing our happy little town, Newburyport Superior Court, was an interesting and effective way to protest whatever it was they were against (it seems so foggy now, like a bad dream) in the next Libertyport murder-mystery — Libertyport being that quaint, fictional-but-oh-so-familiar New England community where everyone knows everyone else, and their business, “an idyllic vision straight out of Norman Rockwell, but gay-friendly, with hybrid cars and flat-screen TVs,” as Joel Brown, the author, puts it. But you won’t find him, Baxter, kicking around the Rum House, or fending off the ferocious queries of local gossip/blogger Abigail Marks until next year. “If I make good on my promises,” says Brown, a North End resident, Boston Globe scribbler and author of “Mirror Ball Man” and “Mermaid Blues,” the two Libertyport/McLean mysteries. And he pretty much has to follow up on the series, seeing how he promised to kill off some lucky fan as a reward in his Kickstarter campaign to help finance “Essex County Byway Guide: History, Culture & Nature on the North Shore,” his current project, which has its coming out party next week at Plum Island Coffee Roasters — and his third book in as many years.
The book links 13 North Shore and Cape Ann communities, highlighting their history, culture and of New England style: Picturesque downtowns, working harbors, sandy beaches and rocky shores. And while there are plenty of books to tell visitors what’s what with area motels and restaurants, there aren’t a whole lot of them written by someone already on the ground, someone who knows the area, who can tell them why the Great Marsh is important to everyone and where you really can get the best fried clams and how Motif #1 got to be so tediously famous — and tips about how to avoid those nasty, savage greenheads. And Brown, who has kayaked the marshes, sailed the coast, biked and hiked and bird-watched since landing in the Port 15 years ago, is the guy who can get it done. “I fell for the North Shore’s unique mix of history, culture, scenic beauty and seafood long before I moved here,” he writes in the introduction.
Brown has lived in the North End, with his wife, a dog and a cat, for over a decade, but his connection to the area goes back much further, from daytime visits from Camp Lincoln in Kingston, N.H., let’s say 40 years ago, to the nighttime excursions to the Grog to see guys like Bill Morrissey, back when he was a student at the University of New Hampshire. He moved to the western outback, working as a reporter in Greenfield. He moved to Chicago, he worked as a hard news guy, then as television columnist and all-around arts guy. He moved back here in 1998 after landing a gig as television editor, then executive arts editor, at the Herald, became executive arts editor before being cashiered ("I also use the term mass execution," he says) about five years ago, another ink-stained casualty of print journalism’s sad decline. He’s still in the game, a freelancer, writing features for the Globe North section and a theater column for the city edition, in addition to writing his own arts blog, HubArts, in between paying gigs, the best kind. Although he still finds himself “on the wrong side of the notebook,” with this project, answering questions instead of asking them, it’s a lot closer to what he does, more like a newspaper story, “a massive one, granted, with lots and lots and lots of facts to check,” he says.
The project seemed like a really good idea, one that scribblers come up with “and, 99 times out of 100, never do anything about, then end up kicking yourself in the butt when someone else does,” he says. “And there’s a need for it, but still it seemed like a daunting task — deciding what gets in and what doesn’t, with most communities soaked in centuries of history, with great stories begging to be told. It seemed like a huge task, a beast that didn’t want to be tamed. With this project, he bit off a chunk that he could manage. This time, however, he was not working without a net, not just counting on the good taste and, just as important, robust bank accounts of the reading public, like he had with his self-published Libertyport mysteries. He put out a call for contributions on Kickstarter, a website where fans, groupies and the like back projects, usually for one-of-a-kind experiences, like getting yourself killed off in a Joel Brown book, and sometimes just for advance, signed copies. Kickstarter has been around since 2009, flying mostly below the pop culture radar until Amanda Palmer, the ex-Dresden Doll punk-cabaret singer raked in more than a million smackers in just four weeks with her campaign for “Theater in Evil,” her new album, earlier this year. “That was a real eye-opener for a lots of people,” Brown says.
His Kickstarter campaign jumpstarted the project, drawing some 75 backers, who coughed up enough dough to get the book into print, including paying for the distinctive cover art, four original papercuts by Dylan Metrano, who is probably best-known as a musician, the frontman for Tiger Saw, but has been focusing on a second career as a visual artist, using papercuts as his medium. The Metrano images on the book (the Gloucester fisherman, the shell of the Ardelle, the House of the Seven Gables, a heron — are iconic images, easily recognizable, with an artistic zing. Brown visited Metrano’s papercutting site, thought “there it is.” Metrano will have all-Essex County-related art on display at the launch, and three of the images from the cover will be for sale. Actually, the heron is pulling double-duty: the image is on the cover, and the original has been promised to a Kickstarter pledge, the three others for sale at the launch.
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The launch party for Joel Brown’s “Essex Coastal Byway Guide: History, Culture & Nature on the North Shore” will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26 at Plum Island Coffee Roasters, Hilton’s Marina, 54R Merrimac Street, just west of the boardwalk. Also on hand at the launch party will be Dylan Metrano, whose papercuts of area scenes illustrate the book cover. Books and art will be on sale.