Francine Mathews--Death on Tuckernuck

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I am a huge fan of anything Francine Mathews writes! Some of you may know her as Stephanie Barron, author of the Jane Austen Mysteries, as well as That Churchill Woman, and the wonderful historical standalones, The White Garden and Flaw in the Blood

But I've know Francine longest as the author of the contemporary Nantucket Mysteries, featuring Nantucket police detective Merry Folger. Death on Tuckernuck is the sixth and newest book in the series.  

The Washington Post says of it, "A mystery that’s so suspenseful it’s hard not to skip a chapter to see if certain deeply likable characters are still alive . . . The novel lives and breathes New England island life, with a plot brimming with the best kinds of rude surprises," and I totally agree! Here's Francine to share her inspiration for this suspenseful and atmospheric mystery.


     I am emphatically not a morning person. And that Wednesday in July I was doubly groggy from waking every hour the previous night, in a subliminal terror that I might oversleep. So as I turned my rental car into the Madaket road and headed for Hither Creek at seven-thirty a.m., coffee cup at the ready, I plugged a vague address into my phone’s GPS app just to be certain I arrived where I needed to be.
Jackson Point, on the western end of Nantucket Island.
There was a boat waiting there I couldn’t afford to miss, owned by a man I’d never met, and had only spoken to once. If I got lost or didn’t appear by eight a.m., he’d leave me behind without a second thought. He’d agreed only reluctantly to make room for a passenger on his morning run across Madaket Harbor, and he’d probably be relieved if I didn’t show. I was determined that wouldn’t happen. I’d been trying to catch this boat for the better part of a year.
I write a series of detective novels set on Nantucket, featuring a woman police detective named Meredith Folger. I’d researched five novels in this idyllic setting, part historic New England whaling town and part sybaritic playground, but this morning I was on a mission to get off the island and onto neighboring Tuckernuck--a scrap of sand nine hundred acres round that sits in the Atlantic a mile and a half from Nantucket’s left coast. There is no public ferry between the town of Madaket and Tuckernuck’s Lagoon, as it’s called, where a handful of boats are moored. 

Neither is there any public access, per se, on Tuckernuck itself. The place is entirely owned by the few families that have passed down houses through multiple generations. There are no paved roads, no beach stands or coffee shops, no gas station or package store, no roadside shack selling sand spades and boogie boards. No restaurant or art gallery. No electrical grid. No public water. Not much cell phone coverage, and next to no internet. It is a place of generators and oil stoves, the night sky brilliant with stars.

And unlike nearby Nantucket, there are no tourists or day trippers on Tuckernuck. The island is intensely private, and its residents are fiercely protective of their peace and isolation. To set foot on the Lagoon’s gantry dock or one of Tuckernuck’s beaches, one must be a resident or an invited guest.
I, of course, was neither.
I was mounting what we used to call, in my old days as a CIA analyst, an Intel Op. I was deliberately penetrating a Denied Area with the goal of collecting privileged information. I was, in short, a writer determined to research the perfect location for a murder. And I had gone to idiotic efforts to make it happen.
The previous summer, I’d appeared at the Nantucket Book Festival and cheerfully announced in my author presentation that I wanted access to Tuckernuck, hoping some local reader would be thrilled to arrange it for me.
No one was thrilled.
I’d queried Nantucket friends, residents with boats, about taking me over. All of them looked leery. “It’s private property, you know,” they said. “You’ll really can’t go out there.”
In Colorado that winter, I contacted a friend with the last name of Coffin, whose ancestors were some of the first people to build houses on Tuck early two hundred years ago. He’d never been there himself. But he had a few friends who’d summered there all their lives. He gave me their names and email addresses. Slowly, gradually, I formed a network of people whose memories I could tap, whose teenage experiences threw light on a community so cut off from the rest of the world it might as well have been Everest.

One of them, in turn, gave me a phone number for a guy named Manny. He was a Caretaker, she said. Or in another words, a man with a boat and the keys to Tuckernuck’s kingdom.
Caretakers are professionals who sustain life on Tuckernuck. They are hired by the small island’s residents to spend a good part of their lives from mid-May to mid-October ferrying everything necessary for a comfortable existence between Jackson Point and the Lagoon. This includes blankets, toilet paper, strawberries, cases of wine, rose bushes, lawn mowers, steaks, tonic water, limes, solar panels, Portuguese bread, propane, gin, patio umbrellas, sacks of dog food, lawn chairs, milk, pate, and paint. Anything you might consider necessary for happiness, including the one-hundred and twenty-five guests you invited to your Tuckernuck wedding, can be transported by a Caretaker’s boat, and then removed—along with your week’s worth of trash and your dead wedding bouquets.
The Caretakers are people of deep and hard-won institutional knowledge. Tuckernuck is surrounded by constantly shifting shoals of sand, so unpredictable and wayward that they are merely dotted lines on nautical charts. To navigate the channel into the Lagoon is a tricky and oft-revised endeavor, best accomplished by those who tackle it daily. The Coast Guard avoids Tuckernuck; the draft of its boats is too deep. There is no fire department or police presence on the barrier island, no EMTs. Consider, then, what happens in an emergency—medical, or otherwise. A fire, perhaps, or an act of violence. A sudden stroke in the brain or a clot in an artery. Each trip between Tuckernuck and Madaket takes roughly twenty minutes, in good weather. Call it an hour by boat to the hospital in the best of circumstances.
But what, my feverish imagination asked, about a crisis in the worst of circumstances? --A vessel grounded on one of Tuckernuck’s shoals, say, as a hurricane bore down on New England?
--And what if there was a body in that boat?
How would the police respond, in the form of Meredith Folger?
And what would happen when a crime scene was set adrift in a gale?
This is how writers amuse themselves. How we pass the time. But Caretakers? They’re the ones who answer cries for help. Who stand between life and death. Who might get marooned with a killer in the midst of a natural disaster.

I left my car in the unpaved beach permit lot. There were only two boats idling off the landing. One was a local sportfisherman’s, calibrating the best spot to drop anchor. The other was a scuffed, well-used, and perfectly ordinary aluminum working boat with an outboard motor lowered for action. A guy in a gray sweatshirt was shifting gear around the bow.
“Are you Manny?” I called out to him, breathless.
He shook his head. “I’m George.” In his broad New England accent, it came out as Geoahrge. “Manny’s my brother.”
“He agreed to take me to Tuckernuck.”
“Oh, yeah?” George surveyed me speculatively. “Who you going to see?”
I uttered a name. George shook his head. “He’s not there. Left Saturday.”
“I know,” I attempted. “He offered to rent me a cottage. I’m  going over to look at it.”

“Yeah?” George was persistently skeptical. “What are you gonna do over there?”
“Walk to the house.”
“You know there are people living in it now, right? You can’t bother them.”
“Absolutely not.”
“You can’t just walk around. It’s all private property.”
Yes, I knew.
I subsided meekly on the dock, pacing while I drank my coffee. George heaved empty trash bins into the belly of his craft. Every scrap of garbage generated on Tuck has to be carried back by boat and then trucked to the Nantucket landfill. The smell of diesel fuel and brine rose from the pilings. A gull or two dipped its wings overhead. Then Manny arrived, all grizzled beard and swordfisher’s cap thrust back on his mane of hair, and studied me with his brother’s blunt speculation.
“Who you going out there to see, again?” he asked.
I muttered the name.
Manny scratched his head and gazed out over the harbor at the thin graphite smudge on the horizon that was Tuckernuck. “Don’t look in any windows or walk down any driveways. Don’t bother anybody. We’ll take you off at noon. Got it?”
I got it. I scrambled onto the middle seat of the boat and tried to look as small as possible. George cast off the painter while Manny fired up the motor. And then the boat backed and turned with a wave for the neighboring fisherman, and we headed out to sea.

What remains in my memory now of those hours on Tuckernuck is the eeriness of the empty landscape. Colonies of birds in the thousands, screaming above the eggs they’d laid in the sand and dune grasses. A white-tailed deer; a lone heron in the marsh; a snake slithering across the sandy track beneath my feet. The desolation of an abandoned house, engulfed in decades of scrub oak and rugosa. The wind, and the echoing impression of silence when it dropped. 

I walked the entire perimeter of the island and much of the interior, and encountered only a single other soul, as lost and out of her depth as I was. But I returned to downtown Nantucket that night with a vivid mental notebook of impressions and anecdotes imparted by Manny and George. I had only to mention, on our return trip to Jackson Point, that I’d worked as a nanny on the island forty years before, and suddenly, I was acceptable—a working stiff, too, who like them had catered to Summer People. They unbent and told me a few things about their lives. How they, too, owned a second home on Tuckernuck, along with the fleet of boats that serviced its residents; how deep the Milky Way could be on clear nights; how precious the isolation and peace could seem, in the height of Nantucket’s tourist frenzy. Manny and George gave me passage to the forbidden place, yes, but they gave me something more valuable—the stuff of character. Months later, writing Death on Tuckernuck in a Colorado winter, it was the Caretakers who’d lasted.
I hope they and their remarkable island come as much alive in the pages of my latest book, for you.

More about Death on Tuckernuck: In the Category 3 winds of a late-season hurricane, Nantucket police detective Merry Folger and her team attempt a rescue off the secluded island of Tuckernuck—only to discover a deadly secret.
As a hurricane bears down on Nantucket, Dionis Mather and her father have their work cut out for them. Their family business is to ferry goods and people back and forth from Tuckernuck, the private island off Nantucket’s western tip, a place so remote and exclusive that it is off the electric grid. As caretakers of the small plot of sand in the middle of the Atlantic, the Mathers are responsible for evacuating Tuckernuck’s residents. But as the storm surge rises and the surf warnings mount, Dionis has to make a choice: abandon whatever—or whoever—was left behind, or risk her own life by plunging back into the maelstrom. Even she has no idea what evil the hurricane is sheltering.
When the coast guard notifies the Nantucket police of a luxury yacht grounded in the shoals off Tuckernuck’s northern edge—with two shooting victims lying in the main cabin—detective Meredith Folger throws herself into an investigation before the hurricane sweeps all crime-scene evidence out to sea. Merry is supposed to be on leave this weekend, dancing at her own wedding, but the Cat 3 has thrown her blissful plans into chaos. As her battered house fills with stranded wedding guests and flood waters rise all over Nantucket Island, Merry has her own choice to make: How much should she risk in order to bring a criminal to justice?

DEBS: Reds and readers, would you want to spend a long summer in such an isolated place?

 Francine Mathews, who also writes as Stephanie Barron, is the author of 29 novels of mystery, espionage, and historical fiction. A former intelligence analyst at the CIA, she lives and writes in Colorado. DEATH ON TUCKERNUCK is available now from Soho Crime.