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Jennie Bentley | History Mystery : Truth or Fiction?

March 4, 2010

JENNIE BENTLEYPLASTER AND POISONIt’s the kind of coincidence that, if I’d put it into a book, nobody would believe.

Picture this: it’s sometime in late 2008, and I’m sitting in front of my computer, getting ready to start writing the third book in my Do-It-Yourself mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime, featuring textile-designer-turned-home-renovator Avery Baker and her boyfriend, hunky handyman Derek Ellis. (Remember those names. There’ll be a quiz later.)

Each book in the series details the renovation of a decrepit house, and each book includes a few fresh murders and some sort of history mystery. In book 1,
Fatal Fixer-Upper Avery inherited her Aunt Inga’s Second Empire Victorian cottage and hooked up with Derek, the handyman she hired to help her renovate it. In book 2,Spackled and Spooked the two of them bought and renovated their first project together: a low-slung mid-century brick ranch, rumored to be haunted because of a tragedy that took place some seventeen or eighteen years ago.

I had already decided that in book 3, Avery and Derek would be taking on the renovation of an old carriage house at the back of their friend Kate McGillicutty’s property. They’re broke, since they haven’t sold the house from book 2 yet, and turning Kate’s carriage house from decrepit garden shed into romantic retreat for two in time for Kate’s New Year’s Eve wedding to the man of her dreams, police chief Wayne Rasmussen, would be just the thing to tie them over. I knew who the murder victim would be–someone from Kate’s past–I knew who killed him and why, and all that was left was to figure out the historical connection.

Kate’s house, the Waterfield Inn, is a big 1896 Queen Anne, with turrets and towers and every Victorian excess imaginable. World War One was looming on the horizon at that time, and I thought a war story might make for an interesting tie-in. I hadn’t done one yet, and the timing was right. The quaint and fictitious town of Waterfield is located on the coast of Maine, and there used to be a navy base at Elliott, just up the road apiece. And that’s how I came to be scanning lists of navy casualties during The Great War.

9.7 million military personnel died in WWI. 116,708 of those were Americans. Quite a few were enlisted in the navy. The names went on forever, and it wasn’t long before my eyes glazed over as my finger got heavier and heavier on the mouse and the scroll bar slid down at breakneck speed. Until something jumped out at me and jerked me out of my stupor.

Yes, it sounds crazy, but it’s the only way I can explain it. Some sort of almost-subliminal message that my brain picked up, that went by too fast for my eyes to see clearly. I had to backtrack to look for what I thought I’d seen, just to be sure I’d really seen it.

And lo, there it was: the kind of coincidence that nobody would believe if it happened in a book or a movie. I’m not sure I would have believed it myself, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Yet there was no doubt. On the list of the fallen was a young fireman third class, from a small town called Chandler, Texas, by the name of William Avery Ellis.

(You remember those names I told you to remember earlier, don’t you? If not, go back and read them again.)

If that wasn’t coincidence enough, William had joined the navy on June 3rd 1917. He died three days later, still on the navy base in Dallas. From strychnine poisoning.

It’s enough to make any crime writer’s heart beat faster. And I hope I’m not the only one getting chills.

Unfortunately, those tidbits are all I ever managed to learn about William. He lived, he died, and that’s all I know. I don’t know who killed him, or why, or if whoever did it was caught and punished. I don’t think it was an accident, because other accidental deaths on the same list were noted as such, while this wasn’t. I’m pretty sure someone killed poor William, but as for why, I have no idea.

In lieu of having the facts, I came up with my own story, rife with adultery, illegitimacy, murder, betrayal and a bunch of other things. I changed William’s middle name from Avery to Aaron–the coincidence of Avery Ellis was just too much, even for me; plus, no one would have believed it–but I used whatever other details I could. Instead of Chandler, Texas, my William lived on Chandler Street in Waterfield, and just like the real William, his mother’s name was Mallessa. I turned him into a relative of Derek’s a few generations back, and carved his initials in a heart inside Kate’s carriage house. And then I set Avery on the trail, and sat back to see what she’d find out.

The result is Plaster and Poison, book 3 in the Do-It-Yourself Home Renovation mysteries. It was released on March 2nd. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, please check it out. And if by chance you know anything about William Avery Ellis of Chandler, Texas, I’d love to hear from you. You can find me here:

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