How “noir” is Shelburne Falls?

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Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts is a real town of about 2,000 people. It is an idyllic, picture-postcard New England village with a river running down its center, waterfalls, an Iron Bridge which you can drive across, a Bridge of Flowers which you can walk across, a drug store with a soda fountain (not an ironic recreation of a soda fountain, a REAL, functioning soda fountain that has always been there), a hundred-year-old movie theater, a natural foods co-op, lots of cute artsy shops, multiple massage therapists and potters, a Buddhist meditation center, and a busy main street (though it is named Bridge Street, not Main Street – there IS a street named Main Street, but it is not the MAIN street in town, thus contributing to the town’s quirkiness).

I live here.

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I’ve been a fan of mystery novels for most of my life, especially dark, noir-ish mysteries. They’re usually set in some urban jungle like New York or LA. Some pretty good ones have had rural settings, but it’s usually a backwater, poor, hardscrabble countryside. I have encountered few which are set in a bright, cheery place like Shelburne Falls.

So I decided to write one.

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But how exactly does a dark mystery fit into a bright town?

Well, first of all there is the contrast – if something evil inhabits a place already filled with evil, it’s kind of redundant and expected. On the other hand, if it sneaks into a more-or-less happy place, it’s jarring and seems twice as malevolent.

And Shelburne Falls is filled with contrast – our decorative, somewhat delicate Bridge of Flowers stands right next to our sturdy, completely utilitarian Iron Bridge. Our quiet, smooth Deerfield River flows into the dam at the power station and abruptly becomes an angry waterfall, at least when the rains come.

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And walk down Bridge Street on a slow night, with little illumination other than that from the shop windows, and thick clouds overhead glowing from the streetlights.  There is an ominous stillness there which seems to contradict the peace. It feels like something strange could happen.

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Actually something strange did happen in Shelburne Falls – Hollywood discovered us, at least for a few brief, shining moments. Some big Hollywood movies were shot here. They liked our look – Smalltown, USA. Famous stars walked our streets. You could talk to them. You would run into them at the restaurants and the bars and the pizza parlors. It was kinda cool. But that ended quickly and we became boring again.

So now the elements of this book I decided to write were falling into place. We had a cute, somewhat boring town – with some wickedness lingering in the shadows – and a Hollywood invasion.  What if another film came to town and it involved the world’s most famous young star? And what if an honorable, but downcast, over-the-hill, local detective was hired to protect her? And what if she disappeared on his watch? And what if he became obsessed with finding out what happened to her?

Okay – so now we have everything we need to make this into a novel. Let’s add in some spiritual elements – since I have seldom read a mystery which is explicitly spiritual. (Actually most mysteries are spiritual in that the protagonist is generally a force of good battling a force of bad, but let’s put this element more up front.)
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And while we’re at it, let’s kind of get rid of the idea of this being a mystery at all – and make it more the story of a man dealing with the challenges of changes and aging and figuring out what his life is all about anyway.

So, yeah – let’s do all those things.

That’s what I tried to do, and that’s how The Nutting Girl was born.

(photos courtesy of Donna Seymour and Phil Billitz)

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