Guest- Susan Van Kirk

Jessie: In Maine, dreaming up the plot of my next mystery!

I am just delighted to host Susan Van Kirk on the blog today! Not only is she a fellow writer and frequent commenter on the blog, she was a tremendous resource for my next release, Murder Cuts the Mustard! I mentioned in one of my posts here that I was planning to add a scene with bridge to the book but was very unsure about the nuts and bolts of the game. Susan came to the rescue when she emailed me and generously provided me with the information I needed about the finer points of bridge! Thanks so much, Susan!

Hiding the Evidence

I decided to clean my home office closet last week—my three-door-across-three-shelf-plus-lots-of-floor-space closet I have been throwing items into for the past fifteen years. It occurred to me that if I didn’t take care of this, at some point my three children would have to. I know this sounds thoughtful of me. Yes, I do try to be a kind person. However, somewhere in that overstocked closet was a box with all my high school diaries I needed to shred before an unforeseen catastrophe brought the children home.

Now what does this have to do with my new mystery, A Death at Tippitt Pond

In my closet-cleaning days, I found boxes of various items belonging to my deceased family members. Photographs, jewelry, high school yearbooks from 1933, the sign-in book from my mother’s memorial service in 1972, the Dallas Morning News pin my sportswriter brother wore to work, the picture of the house I grew up in that no longer exists, and, oh, so many other artifacts reminding me of the passage of time and the family from whence I sprang. And photographs—so many photographs.

Besides this infinite mound of photographs, I found the stash of my father’s love letters to my mother when he was in Germany near the end of WWII. While chasing Hitler’s army to their final reward, he wrote these letters on lined paper with a ball-point pen. He poured out his dreams for their future, the love he felt for her, and the family they hoped to have. As I read them, I marveled at the fragility of human life and relationships: the possibility he might not have made it home (and two of us wouldn’t have been born), and the relief my mother must have felt each time she received one or more of these letters.

Love letters—family—history.

A Death at Tippitt Pond begins a new series with both mystery and history. Beth Russell, my protagonist, is a historical researcher and genealogist who hires out to well-known authors to do their research. (Now, that would be my dream job.) Ironically, she knows little about her own family tree, and as for relatives, well, she is alone in the world. When an unusual set of circumstances takes her from Long Island to Sweet Iron, Illinois, she is confronted with a past, a murder, and a family she didn’t know existed. As my friend and mystery writer, Molly MacRae puts it, “Suddenly everything you know about your life is wrong—and the truth is better but also shockingly worse.” 

This first book in the Sweet Iron mysteries leaves me lots of room to maneuver. In A Death at Tippitt Pond, I explore the music, fashion, and attitudes of the late 1960s. Yes, it does make me mildly irritated to admit that a period I occupied in the last century is now considered past history. Chantilly perfume, anyone? 

In my series Beth will explore a mystery in present-day Sweet Iron while she also researches her new family genealogy to find out about W.W. Tippitt, who ran both the newspaper in the 1850s and a stop on the Underground Railroad. After that, I have in mind relatives from the late 1800s, the early 1900s with its suffragette movement, and the huge wars. 

History is about people and their lives. Intertwining a mystery plot with the rich context of historical periods is a challenging goal for me. And I love it.

Susan Van Kirk lives at the center of the universe—the Midwest—and writes during the ridiculously cold, snowy, icy winters. Why leave the house and break something? Her Endurance mysteries are humorous cozies about a retired school teacher in the small town of Endurance who finds herself in the middle of murders. Her new series about Beth Russell combines history and mystery in her debut, A Death at Tippitt Pond. Van Kirk taught for 44 years in high school and college, raised three children, has low blood pressure (a miracle after all that), and is blissfully retired. You can find out about her books at www.susanvankirk.com


Secrets long buried surround the murder of teenage Melanie Tippitt. The daughter of a wealthy family in a small town, her lifeless body was found floating in Tippitt Pond in the summer of 1971. Six people were there that day, and one was convicted of her murder. Case closed.

     Now, forty-five years later, Beth Russell, a freelance researcher and genealogist, is brought to the town by a lawyer who believes Russell is the daughter of Melanie Tippitt and long-lost heir to the Tippitt fortune. Soon Beth finds herself surrounded by people who want her gone as soon as possible, people with a great deal to lose. The more they push the more determined Beth is to discover the truth. The ghostly presence of Melanie Tippitt, a stranger watching from the woods, and the discovery of secrets in Tippitt House make for a suspense-filled investigation where Beth discovers A Death at Tippitt Pond changed everything.

Readers, do you remember Chantilly perfume, bellbottom jeans, CPO jackets, miniskirts?

26 Thoughts

  1. Your book sounds wonderful, Susan! And how cool it would be to read old letters written by one family member to another. You almost make me want to clean out my own closets!

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    1. You have no idea, Marla, what surprises and treasures might lie in those closets! Despite the question of what to do with numerous no-longer-used phones that flip open, every so often there is an unexpected item like the letter my son wrote to me his first year of college. Yes, saved that one.

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  2. I recently finished A Death at Tippitt Pond and loved it. Eagerly awaiting more of Beth’s story. 1960s/1970s you are talking my high school/college days here. I still like the scent of Chantilly, and I wish, wish, wish, I had hung on to those Landlubber jeans!

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    1. I don’t know about you, Kait, but I certainly couldn’t wear my bellbottom jeans anymore.What fun it was to go back and think about those days, and Chantilly is still for sale online, but the company is no longer French. It still has that spicy, lemony scent, and I like to take a bottle to book signings. Thanks for reading my book and for your kind comments.

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  3. Welcome, Susan! I also have pictures and letters like that, and one picture sparked an idea for a new series for me (stay tuned). Bellbottoms, go-go boots, skirts I could sew out of a half yard of fabric? Yup!

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  4. Hi, Edith. It does not surprise me that you have pictures and letters like that; you Yankee Easterners save everything. I love the Northeast, and I’m always in awe of the history that has been saved out your way. I will stay tune for this new series!

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  5. Great post, Susan. When we added A/C to our house a few years ago, we had to empty the attic during the installation. I found all of the letters my grandmother wrote to me in college, as well as all the letters my husband wrote to me when he was deployed in 2005. Treasures indeed.

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  6. Treasures indeed. We put those articles away, and then life goes on. Later, when we find them once again, they are so precious because they are a part of a place and time, plus a tangible piece of people we love. They are part of our own histories. My new protagonist, Beth Russell, doesn’t have those precious artifacts. Her story is eye-opening because circumstances lead her to a family history she never knew. Unfortunately, that information also puts her life in jeopardy. It’s always good to hear from someone who also values those pieces of time.

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  7. What a treasure trove, Susan! And I love the premise of your story. I’m going to have to look up what a CPO jacket is but I was a big fan of bell bottoms and mini-skirts. And Yardley — all things Yardley.

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    1. I had a feeling that closet cleaning might appeal to you with all the treasures you would find. Closets…yard sales. I’m so happy I could combine my love of history and mystery in the new book. A CPO jacket was designed after a navy jacket and stood for Chief Petty Officer. Mine was navy wool and short…cropped at the waist. It was double breasted with large navy buttons. The perfect find at a thrift store. Loved those 60s and 70s clothes…a real age of excess!

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  8. I grew up in that era. I had all the things you mentioned. It was a great time to be a teenager. Our family have never been “keepers”, but I have one very precious box of letters my father (who would be 110) wrote to his mother when he was a young man living on the other side of the country. I learned so much about my daddy from those letters. Looking forward to revisiting the Midwest through your books.

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    1. How wonderful for you that you found those letters. It is almost like listening to your father’s voice when he didn’t know you would be listening. How cool that you get to hear him as a young man. You’re so right about letters revealing so much…I never doubted the love my parents had for each other, and these letters certainly supported that idea. They were so young in the early 1940s. I wrote a novella called “The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney.” It is only an ebook and is part of my earlier series. Its cold case goes back to the 1940s and a dance venue with the Big Band sound. I guess history will always be one of my passions.

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  9. Born in ’48 I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. Sort of remember the 60’s as a blur of music, H.S., partying and a lot of grass. My group was composed of the slackers, band nerds and smart kids.. We didn’t care as long as we got along. Yes I wore bell bottoms, but with my skinny legs I stayed away from the mini/micro skirts some of my friends parents allowed. Most of the males in my family were veterans including a favorite much older cousin who was an Oxi-Moron (Military Intel). He was also a lifer who volunteered for WWII and is buried with honors as a Major. His wife of many years right beside him was a 1st. Lt.

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      1. You are so lucky to know so much about your family’s history, and I can see why you are so proud of them. Thanks so much for sharing my book. I had a lot of fun writing it and remembering things I’d evidently not forgotten. Writing does that. It pulls out thoughts from the past that were buried for a while. Thanks for sharing, fellow Boomer.

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  10. Susan, I absolutely love mysteries that bring in the past. The truth is, we live on the top layer of a deep and rich history that colors and makes sense of all we see. I loved how you handled that in A Death at Tippitt Pond, and I look forward to your next book!

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  11. Thanks so much, Connie. Having read your two books, I think we have a lot of interests in common. You are so right about the texture and depth that history brings in. Good luck with your upcoming book release!

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  12. Sorry, I was born in the mid-70’s so that s all ancient history to me. 😉

    The new series definitely sounds intriguing.

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  13. Susan, your new series sounds wonderful! I had white bell-bottoms with pleat insets at the outer bottom hem. The inset on one side was purple polka dots and the other side was orange stripes! I loved them — and thought I was the bomb when I wore them!

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  14. You are forgiven, my son. You’re actually the age of my oldest “child.” So I know your historical period also! My new mystery heads a bit farther away from the cozies you usually read and is more traditional, but it still is set in a small town and has some of the humor of cozies. I think with the second book I’ll include more of that.

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  15. Hi, Vickie. Sorry, I’m getting my replies turned around here. The last one was for Mark. I love your description of your bell-bottoms. In my latest mystery, the family of a murdered woman left her bedroom just as it had been in the early 1970s. The closet still holds all her clothes, the chest of drawers has her records, and the jewelry box on top of the dresser holds her huge geometric jewelry. You can even see the change in her fashion as she went from more conservative middle school clothes to peasant dresses and, finally, mini-skirts, beaded hairbands, and fringe. Lots of fun looking back on those days. Oh, and Chantilly perfume–big symbol in the story and a bit haunting!

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  16. Thank you, Jessie and Company, for letting me guest post on your site today.It’s been fun. I’m waiting for your book with the bridge game!!

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  17. Loved your post! My father died last winter, and my mother let me take a treasure trove of old family photos and documents from the 19th and early 20th centuries home with me. I write historicals and they are proving such an inspiration!

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    1. You are so right, Catherine. I think I kept most of the historical photos too. I’m sure your mother is excited that you are so interested in having them.

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