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Shelburne Falls mysteries; Emily Arsenault and Fred DeVecca pen new books

  • Shelburne Falls writers, and friends, Emily Arsenault and Fred DeVecca on the Bridge of Flowers. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Shelburne Falls writers Emily Arsenault, center, and Fred DeVecca talk with Nancy Eisenstein, proprietor of Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls. The two have each penned a new mystery, Arsenault with the young-adult title “The Leaf Reader” and DeVecca with the locally placed novel “The Nutting Girl.” GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Shelburne Falls writers (and friends) Fred DeVecca and Emily Arsenault, seen here on the Bridge of Flowers over the Deerfield River, have penned new mysteries, "The Nutting Girl" and "The Leaf Reader", respectively. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Shelburne Falls writers (and friends) Emily Arsenault and Fred DeVecca meet in Boswell's Books in Shelburne Falls on Monday, August 7, 2017. The two have penned new mysteries, Arsenault with the Young Adult fiction "The Leaf Reader" and DeVecca with the locally placed novel "The Nutting Girl". —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Shelburne Falls writers (and friends) Emily Arsenault and Fred DeVecca have penned new mysteries, "The Leaf Reader" and "The Nutting Girl", respectively. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2017

Shelburne Falls, a perfect setting for a mystery? Or just a good place for writers to call home?

For Emily Arsenault and Fred DeVecca, it’s both.

The two friends, fellow writers and Shelburne Falls residents, have both published mysteries this summer that have won favorable reviews. For Arsenault, with five previous books to her credit, “The Leaf Reader” is her first published foray into young-adult (YA) fiction. And for DeVecca, a veteran freelance journalist and screenwriter, “The Nutting Girl” is his debut novel.

DeVecca, who met Arsenault in town about five years ago, asked his friend for her feedback on part of an early draft of “The Nutting Girl, which is set in Shelburne Falls. “She very graciously sat down with me and offered me some really good ideas,” said DeVecca.

Arsenault said she was happy to do it. “I read between 50 and 100 pages, and I thought, ‘Someone’s going to pick this up,’ and I’m thrilled how it’s worked it out for him.”

Arsenault, who wrote her first novel, “The Broken Teaglass,” in 2009, has yet to set any of her books in Shelburne Falls (though one takes place partly in Northampton in the 19th century). But she says she draws a lot of energy for her writing “from living in a place where people do a lot of creative things.”

‘The Leaf Reader’

Arsenault says her first stab at writing a book was a YA title, and though it was never published, she thought she might return to the genre one day.

With “The Leaf Reader,” as in her other titles, she wanted to take something she was interested in — in this case tea-leaf reading — and build a book around it (she includes a funny author’s note on her experience with making predictions based on such readings).

“I thought this might be a more plausible subject for a YA book than an adult novel,” she said.

The story is centered on Marnie Wells, a high-school junior who’s not part of the “in” crowd in her suburban Connecticut town. Marnie and her troubled older brother, Noah, have been raised by their eccentric grandmother (the siblings call her “G. Clara”) in a run-down house. Her grandmother also teaches home economics at the local high school, where she’s known for her foul mouth.

Marnie figures she might just as well let her freak flag fly (or “make my skeletons dance,” as she puts it) by taking up tea-leaf reading after she finds a book on the subject in her grandmother’s bookcase. Strangely enough, word soon gets out around school about her new hobby, and kids start requesting her to make predictions for them.

One of them is Matt Cotrell, a good-looking basketball star who wants to know if Marnie can tell her anything about Andrea Quinley, a fellow student and friend of Matt’s who disappeared from town months ago. Andrea is presumed dead — yet Matt has been receiving mysterious email messages from someone who appears to be her.

As the plot becomes more complicated, Marnie has to wonder if Matt, who appears to have some feelings for her, is just using her — and if her predictions, which seem to be pointing to some darker currents in town, such as drug use and the possible disappearance of another student, might mean she has some real foresight about the past and future.

Like Arsenault’s other mysteries, “The Leaf Reader” turns on dialogue, suspense and atmosphere rather than dramatic events or horror. “When my husband reads my manuscripts, he always says, ‘Why don’t you put some more action in it?’ ” she said with a laugh.

But the conversations in “The Leaf Reader” feel genuine, with all the posturing and insecurity that teens can show. The New York Times calls the book “skillfully constructed . . . Arsenault never pushes the supernatural angle too hard, letting Marnie, and the reader, skate on the suspenseful edge of skepticism and belief.”

If it resonates on a deeper level, it’s likely because there’s something of the author in the book; Arsenault, who’s 41 and grew up in Connecticut, says high school “is still so vivid to me. I keep going back to that, whether it’s teen characters or adults who have lingering adolescent issues.” 

‘The Nutting Girl’

DeVecca said the initial inspiration for his book came when Hollywood crews descended on Shelburne Falls in 2012 and 2013 to film scenes from the movies “Labor Day” and “The Judge,” respectively. He covered those stories for The Independent, a local newspaper, and he sensed that the buzz generated by seeing stars like Kate Winslet and Robert Downey Jr. hanging out in town “could make for good fodder” for a novel.

He had some initial reservations, though, about actually setting the story in Shelburne Falls. “I mean, bad things happen in the book,” he said. “Some people die, and I didn’t want [residents] to think I was giving the town a bad name.”

But he got a vote of confidence from Archer Mayor, the Vermont mystery writer who has set his long-running series featuring police investigator Joe Gunther in and around Brattleboro, VT. Mayor, after a reading he gave in Shelburne Falls a few years back, told DeVecca he shouldn’t worry about using the real town as the setting for his book.

“He said ‘Bad things happen everywhere,’ ” said DeVecca. 

“The Nutting Girl” has its share of darkness, but it’s also a portrait of a quirky town and its characters; well-known locales like The Bridge of Flowers, the Glacial Potholes and Mocha Maya’s café are part of the scene. The story is narrated by Frank Raven, a world-weary figure whose background includes stints as a monk, a private detective and (very briefly) a cop. He also used to have a drinking problem.

These days Frank, 55, keeps a low profile: He runs an old movie theater in town (think Pothole Pictures), records bird calls on his cell phone and dances and sings with a local troupe of male Morris Dancers, who perform a form of English folk dance. 

But he’s coaxed out of retirement when a Hollywood film crew arrives in town; the star of the upcoming movie is a beautiful young woman, Julianna Velvet Norcross (she’s nicknamed “VelCro”), who is as wild and fragile as she is talented. The film’s slick director, Nick Mooney, hires Frank to protect Julianna while the crew’s in town.

He and Julianna strike up an odd friendship, based in part on Julianna’s questions about Frank’s spiritual views, which in turn brings Frank a bit out of his self-imposed shell. But when the young actress mysteriously falls ill, then vanishes into the Deerfield River during the film’s first day of shooting, Frank has many more questions to pursue, and the plot turns increasingly sinister.

DeVecca says he has long been a fan of mysteries and detective stories, but he conceived of Frank Raven (who has a bit of the author woven into him) as something of a spiritual, introspective character as much as a former private eye.

“There are times where he seems out of his depth,” he said. “He kind of stumbles onto things. That’s deliberate — I wanted this sense of a certain higher element kind of guiding things, showing him the way to go.”

In fact, DeVecca says his publisher, Coffeetown Press in Seattle, WA, originally planned to market “The Nutting Girl” as literary fiction. But when veteran Texas writer James Reasoner gave the book a favorable blurb — he calls it “one of the best private eye novels to come along in a long time” — the publisher quickly labeled it a mystery and asked DeVecca for a follow-up.

He’s at work on that now, with Frank Raven again confronting strange doings in Shelburne Falls. But if you live there and worry that you might end up in his books, rest assured, said DeVecca.

“That’s the question I get all the time, and the answer is almost 100 percent ‘no,’ ” he said with a laugh. “There are a few composite portraits, but this is fiction, pure and simple.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Fred DeVecca will read from “The Nutting Girl” at Broadside Books in Northampton on Sept. 20. His website is freddevecca.com. Emily Arsenault’s website is emilyarsenault.com.