Mystery Writers Wreak Literary Mayhem in Cape Fear

When film crews come to the region, they're often looking for backdrops that could be anywhere. When authors, on the other hand, make it to the Cape Fear Coast, the setting is often as much a part of the story as the plot. With the Cape Fear Crime Fest the last weekend in October, WHQR's Megan Williams goes in search of Wilmington's seedy fictional underbelly...

Mystery Writers Wreak Literary Mayhem in Cape Fear

Wilmington, NC, October 19, 2005 – On the dark and stormy pages of recent Wilmington mysteries, dead bodies have shown up on roadsides, in the teahouse at the arboretum... Almost anywhere, local author Wanda Canada says, a writer can think of to lay them down.

Wanda Canada: "You could hide a body, you could hide a million bodies in New Hanover County."

And she's tucked away more than a few in the course of her mystery series, using real locales to do it... New Hanover county librarian Dorothy Hodder stands in an empty lot, looking toward a well-maintained gray house on the edge of the Cape Fear River. Behind her, trucks rumble across the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

Dorothy Hodder: "I'm just sure this is the house that Wanda Canada describes in the climax of her first novel, "Island Murders." There's just all kinds of mayhem and hostage situations and fires and perils going on in that scene, and I never read it without picturing this house and I'd love to go in that house, I don't even know who owns it."

Canada hears this sort of thing a lot. Living where her characters murder, and are murdered, means trying to fend off those who see real issues, and people, in her fictional mayhem.

Canada: "And, you know, I try not to use real characters, I use a composite of people I've known forever, but they still think they know the situation and know the people. It keeps people's interest. But when they say, 'how do you get away with that?' you think, 'Oh Lordy, one of these days I'm going to get sued because they think they know who it is.'"

Historical novelist Dewey Lambdin doesn't fear lawsuits. But messing around with the past in a city as enamored of its history as Wilmington, does have it's own perils. Lambdin's new book, "What Lies Buried" is the first in what he hopes will be a series of mysteries set in pre-revolutionary Wilmington. And though real historical events loom up throughout the book, Lambdin says, sometimes the details need to be fudged.

Dewey Lambdin: "As far as where people actually lived, those were educated guesses. Kind of like, well, they have to see the court house or the church and have to see this guy ride past the lights to decide he's going down a certain street at a certain time of the evening, so the Widow Yadkin's ordinary has to be here, you know, and cross my fingers and hope that somebody doesn't come up and slap me in the face and say, 'no, that was always the tan-yard, you idiot!'"

Key details when Lambdin's sleuth tries to track the victim's final ride...

Reading from "What Lies Beneath": "Livesy nodded, satisfied. 'Bess related that you said Harry rode up 3rd Street for home, to turn onto Princess Street at the courthouse, so he could ride downhill for Princess and Second?' 'No, he took Market street, by Saint James...'"

Lambdin's novel sat unpublished for over a decade, in part because his publisher wanted him to recast the setting to somewhere in New England, a more "Revolutionary War-appropriate" location. Learning to value their Southern setting can be a challenge, even for native novelists. North Carolina author Margaret Maron set her first series in New York City...

Margaret Maron: "...because I thought, in order to sell a mystery, or a book of any kind, it had to be set in a great urban area. It took me a long time to realize all the things of the South could be as exotic as their places were to us."

Maron is considering setting her next book in Wilmington. While Wilmington authors worry about knowing too much ... Maron's challenge is learning the area.

Maron: "I try to find out what the conflicts are and I do want to let the mystery and I want the conflict to grow out of the setting."

To ferret out those conflicts, Maron chats up locals, dishes dirt, and...

Maron: "Another thing I do is subscribe to local paper, because I have found that when people are really teed off about something, they will write letters to the editor and that's a great way to find out what's really going on in a community."

Letters that in a bloodthirsty imagination turn real issues into page-turners. Contemporary authors like Maron and Wanda Canada play with regional growth and the film industry. And back in the past, Dewey Lambdin still hasthe entire British Empire to take on.

Megan Williams, WHQR News.