By Anne White
Readers Journal, Fall 2005
Mysteries which involve books or libraries are fascinating, especially
to those of us who’ve spent our working lives and a good
share of our off-work hours with the printed word.
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a young apprentice
sees a library as a “place of long, centuries-old murmuring” where
books speak of other books, as if they spoke among themselves
in “an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and
we leave the library’s busy reference and reading sections
for a foray into the stacks, we may hear that murmuring, experience
that quiet, other-worldly quality, which sometimes, if we are
so inclined, turns our minds to thoughts of mystery and murder.
Who, we wonder, is that strange figure skulking among the medical
books, that shadowy form taking the elevator down to the lower
levels, that frightening apparition looming up suddenly by the
many authors have created exciting, authentic mysteries about
libraries with so much success, a novice mystery writer, even
one whose second language is the Dewey Decimal System, may hesitate
to try her hand at that particular setting. Think—Agatha
Christie’s The Body in the Library; Joann Dobson’s Cold
and Pure and Very Dead, Lawrence Block’s The Burglar
in the Library and Robert Barnard’s much-too-scary-to-think-about Death
of a Mystery Writer.
writers have looked beyond the library to a similar setting—the
mystery book store—and given us classics like John Dunning’s Booked
to Die, Joan Hess’s Strangled Prose, Carolyn
Hart’s Yankee Doodle Dead and Bartholomew Gill’s The
Death of an Ardent Bibliophile.
even after all my years in the stacks, I approached the idea
of a biblio-mystery slowly, circled it carefully and settled
on starting with a modest library scene. I sent my protagonist,
Loren Graham, mayor of the sleepy little Lake George town of
Emerald Point, to my own hometown of Glens Falls, NY and our
community’s wonderful Crandall Library. Her task seems
easy enough—break a simple code used by a young murder
victim whose body Loren herself has discovered.
involvement in the case begins innocently during a morning run
along the beautiful Lake George shoreline. A quarter mile past
the parking area where she’s left her car, she encounters
sixteen-year-old Todd Lewis, who’s suffered an accident
with his mountain bike. Todd, wet and disoriented, gestures toward
a wheel which has come off his bike and rolled down an embankment
to the edge of the lake twenty feet below.
Loren slides down the slope to retrieve it, Todd follows her
and points out a car submerged in the lake. He’s swum out
to check the car, he says, but found no one in it. Loren, far
more trusting now than she would have been during her years in
New York City, hands him her cell phone and tells him to call
the sheriff’s department and report the find.
is moving along the bank, carrying the wheel, searching for an
easier way to climb back to the top, when she makes a startling
discovery—a decomposing corpse. To her horror, Loren has
stumbled on the body of beautiful, promiscuous Tammy Stevenson,
a local high school student who’s been missing for a year.
discovery of the body rocks the peaceful little town, especially
when an autopsy reveals Tammy has been murdered. Although the
girl was linked to a number of older men in the community, the
sheriff’s department finds no evidence which connects any
of them with her death.
Lewis, fearful of being suspected of the murder, leaves town
after sending Loren Tammy’s notebook with entries written
in code. Loren turns the notebook over to the sheriff’s
department, but keeps a copy of the entries.
efforts to translate Tammy’s coded notations take her to
the library. She knows from her young friend Josie Donohue that
writing in code is popular with the local high school girls and
she hopes by deciphering Tammy’s notes to discover what
happened to her.
the library Loren finds books listed under the subject heading,
Codes and Ciphers, and learns some of the basics of cryptography.
she discovers, is the art of writing and deciphering coded messages;
a cryptographer, the person who creates or breaks a code or cipher.
Codes have a long and fascinating history. Julius Caesar, Galileo,
Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe were
among the many famous people interested in encoded writing. Code
breaking has always been associated with espionage and more recently
with electronic banking and the Internet. The popularity of the
2003 blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, awakened
new interest in how information can be obscured and then brought
she reads, Loren learns more about two basic ways messages can
be concealed. In codes, each word is represented by another word.
For example, the writer might use the word blue to mean tomorrow and
the word cloud to mean meeting. The message cloud-blue would
tell his fellow spies the meeting is to take place the next day.
involve the substitution or transposition of letters or numbers.
The cipher Tammy used appears simple enough. Guided by what Josie
has told her, Loren prints out the alphabet; then puts a second
alphabet on a separate sheet of paper and slides it along under
the first. After several false starts, she finds the letters
on the first page in the notebook form the words Deke Dolley.
Deke and his wife Ramona, a friend of Loren’s, own a small
log cabin motel and his name, like the others in the notebook,
is followed by a set of figures.
Loren continues deciphering, she discovers all the men listed
are owners of hotels and motels in Emerald Point. At some point
Tammy worked at most of these places, and Loren suspects these
are the names of men Tammy seduced and blackmailed. The figures,
she thinks, may indicate the amount of money she was paid for
there is more hidden beneath the surface in Emerald
Point than the blackmail scheme which may have cost Tammy her
life. As Loren unravels the ties which linked the girl to some
of the area’s leading businessmen, she discovers a secret
consortium with its own agenda for the town and the determination
to kill anyone who stands in its way, including Loren herself.
Beneath The Surface, the second in Anne White’s
Lake George Mystery Series, published by Hilliard and Harris in Frederick,
MD, is now available. An Affinity For Murder,
the first in the series, was a Malice Domestic Best First Mystery Nominee