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Guest: Michael Nethercott

Edith again, happily on a solo writing retreat in Maine

We welcome our fellow New England author Michael Nethercott today. His new book, The Haunting Ballad (St. Martin’s Press), is the second whodunit in his traditional 1950s mystery series. It takes place in Greenwich Village and features the sleuthing odd couple from The Séance Society: private eye Lee Plunkett and scholarly Irishman Mr. O’Nelligan. Take it away, Michael!

Cultural Currents

Blog entry: It’s the spring of 1957, and amidst the swirling music scene of New York’s Greenwich Village, a controversial songcatcher—a folk song collector—has died. Apparently, one late-winter’s night, she climbed to the roof of her apartment building and jumped over the edge. Jumped—or was she pushed?

That’s the kickoff of my new novel, The Haunting Ballad. In looking for a locale/theme for the latest entry in my mid-1950s series, I asked myself what cultural currents were in motion at that time. Well, one particularly lively one was the folk music movement that was just starting to skyrocket in ’57. In the urban centers such as New York and San Francisco, this movement overlapped with the rebellious Beat scene spearheaded by such scribes as Ginsburg and Kerouac. The Village, in particular, became an epicenter for all manner of colorful, dynamic, idiosyncratic goings-on. Seemed like a good place for mayhem.

I found myself mentally flipping through the catalogue of musicians whose careers were thriving—or on the verge of taking off—in that time and place: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Odetta,  the Clancy Brothers, and the various blues singers whose music was finding a new audience. This colorful crowd became an inspiration as I carved out my characters and plot threads. In my writing, I very much take my cue from the Golden Age mystery novelists—Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers, etc.—and I take the “whodunit” piece seriously. I try to give the reader a large assortment of possible guilty parties. In this tale, the songcatcher’s demise leads Plunkett and O’Nelligan to a pretty varied jumble of suspects. There’s the  bluesman with a checkered past, the eccentric coffee house owner, the moody Bohemian poetess, the boisterous clan of Irish balladeers, and a former Civil War drummer boy who has a hundred and five years under his belt.

Then there’s Mrs. Pattinshell, who labels herself a “ghost chanter”—meaning she sings songs that she claims the spirits of the dead have taught her. I grew up in a vast extended  Irish family where presumably true ghost stories were bandied about like ping-pong balls. This definitely influenced me as an author. Something of the supernatural, the ghostly, always seems to find its way into my stories, and the present novel is no exception. Matter of fact, Mrs. Pattinshell’s spooky ditties are at the heart of the mystery. Hence the book’s title.

When I first created my detectives, I opted for an unconventional spin on the standard buddy team. Young Lee Plunkett is a reluctant private eye who inherited the family business from his rough-and-tumble father. Somewhat deficient in both the rough and the tumble departments, Lee also has his limits as a deducer.  That’s where Mr. O’Nelligan comes in. In the tradition of the gentleman sleuth, Mr. O’Nelligan lends his wit, wisdom and deductive chops to the inexperienced Lee. The well-read, quirky Irish immigrant can freely quote Celtic poets, Shakespeare or Elvis Presley. Also in the mix is Lee’s “perpetual fiancée” Audrey.  In the course of the case, just to complicate things, Audrey is entranced particular suspect—a handsome, slick young songwriter who has designs on her. This threat to Lee and Audrey’s relationship is at the core of the tale.

Fortunately, I have an old friend who lives in the Village, whom I was able to stay with for a few days as I was doing my research. Though more than a half century has passed since the time of the folk music revival, I was able to walk those sidewalks and cobblestones and imagine what once was. I could almost catch the lost strains of acoustic guitars drifting down a corridor of phantom coffee houses. It sounded good…

Readers: What are your favorite cultural currents from the past?

Michael Nethercott’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, and the Level Best anthologies. He is a Shamus Award finalist and a past winner of The Black Orchid Novella Award, The Vermont Playwrights Award, and Vermont Writer’s Award. Visit Michael Nethercott’s website and Facebook page.

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