Elm City Whodunit

Elm City Whodunit

L ast year, the New Haven Free Public Library distributed a hand-out: “Check Out These Connecticut Mystery Writers.” The list mentioned the action-packed police adventures penned by Andrew Gross (The Dark Tide) and David Handler (Shimmering Blonde Sister), Rosemary Harris’ stories of crimesolving gardener Paula Holliday and others.

Of the seven writers mentioned by the library, only two set their skullduggery in New Haven: Mary Kittredge, whose heroine Edwina Crusoe works as a medical investigator, and Karen E. Olson, whose earliest mysteries involved Annie Seymour, reporter for the “New Haven Herald.” (Olson has since switched to a different crimefighter and locale: Las Vegas tattoo artist Brett Kavanaugh.)

Some mystery novel towns on the NHFPL’s mystery novel list may sound like fictionalized New Havens, but Bakerhaven—crosswordsmith Cora Felton’s hometown in Parnell Hall’s “Puzzle Lady” series—clearly isn’t one of them. In A Clue for the Puzzle Lady, Bakerhaven’s described as a quiet little town; in Puzzled to Death, Felton asks her niece Sherry, “Can you name me one restaurant in Bakerhaven that delivers?”

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Laura Van Wormer’s exciting, soap-operatic Sally Harrington series—about a TV reporter who invariably gets caught up in murder cases—is set in and around Castleford, an obvious stand-in for Meriden, where Van Wormer resides. Harrington’s work occasionally brings her to New Haven, and to New York for that matter, but those are blips in a narrative centered on the center of Connecticut.

The library clearly was focusing on currently hot authors with Connecticut connections, but there’s a great legacy of crime fiction set in the Elm City.

Some, such as Fountain of Death (part of Jane Haddam’s holiday-themed series starring Gregor Demarkian), disrespect New Haven as a convenient hotbed of crime and vice:

Empty storefronts. Old men sitting on park benches with heavy fraying overcoats to protect them from the cold. Shreds of muddied paper lying in the gutters. Gregor crossed the New Haven Green feeling slightly depressed.

Such sinister shorthanding only works well when the authors have a sense of the special qualities of the Elm City, and can balance the bad with an abundance of good. Entr’acte, published in 2007 by longtime Connecticut journalist Frank Juliano, for instance, makes the most of New Haven’s reputation as a theater town. The best New Haven-based mysteries use the city as a colorful backdrop to dramatic crimes and unpredictable encounters.

Often, that colorful backdrop is blue. Yale University has naturally figured in numerous murder yarns. In 1914, Roy Eliot kicked off his “University Series” of mysteries with Andy at Yale, Or, the Great Quadrangle Mystery, which includes this:

“You don’t quite get me,” went on Dunk, trying to get into a more comfortable position in their small hiding place. “I’ll admit that we may get the thief, and I’m willing to admit, for the sake of argument, that it may be Mortimer—in fact, I’m pretty sure, now, that it is he. But look what it’s going to mean to Yale. This thing will have to come out—it will probably get into the papers, and how will it look to have a Yale man held up as a thief? It doesn’t make any difference to say that he isn’t a representative Yale man—it’s the name of the university that’s going to suffer as much as is Mortimer.

More recent Yale mysteries include Yolanda Joe’s 1992 thriller Falling Leaves of Ivy (“So what do you want me to do? Go against the Mayor to bust some flatfoot from New Haven for the murder of some college kid who’ll just be another stat next week?”), Blue Blood by Pamela Thomas-Graham (who, like Andy at Yale author Stokes, devised a whole series of mysteries set at different colleges) and Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl and Under the Rose, about young women angling to join the furtive secret-society subculture at “Eli University.”

As for off-campus conundrums, Gorman Bechard devised Ninth Square, which opens with a dead body found at the fictitious Elm City Motor Lodge (“located on the New Haven-Woodbridge line, just off exit 59 of the Merritt Parkway”) and ends in the hallways of Yale-New Haven Hospital and the New Haven Police Station. In between, there’s a whole lot of Ninth Square—not as the food and boutique mecca it is today but as it was for much of the 1990s: “The empty streets, the empty buildings…”

Patrick Mascola’s so-called “love mystery” Hell on East Rock was published just this year but is largely set in the 1950s. Bursting with fireworks, class conflict and street crime, Hell is an emotional, multi-generational thriller about those affected by the mysterious fall of a young man from “stately East Rock, the mountain of mystery and charm, with its picnic grounds and magnificent view…” A raven in an Elm tree bears silent witness to the tragedy.

The most popular New Haven-based sleuth of the 20th century might well be Joseph Payne Brennan’s investigator of supernaturally inclined crimes, Lucius Leffing, who ponders evidence while sitting in his “cool Victorian living room” on Autumn Street. The Leffing stories ran in popular periodicals like Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine back in the 1960s.

The tales of Lucius Leffing blend death and derring-do with the quaint pleasures of a liveable city. Joseph Payne Brennan cast himself as the Watson to Lucius Leffing’s Sherlock Holmes, chronicling the sleuth’s adventures firsthand.

“Leffing appeared to be lost in thought,” Brennan observes in his short story “The Case of the Uncut Corpse” (found in the 1973 Macabre House anthology The Casebook of Lucius Leffing).

We had driven at least six blocks before he replied. “Too thorough, Brennan. Too thorough.”
We were well out Whitney Avenue approaching Autumn Street before he spoke again.
“Well, we are headed in the right direction. Are you willing to take a drive over to East Rock Park?”
“Better the park than the morgue,” I commented.

“Better the park than the morgue”—the ultimate New Haven mystery one-liner.

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites www.scribblers.us and New Haven Theater Jerk (www.scribblers.us/nhtj).

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