I read my way through the entire Seaside Knitters mystery series during the first month of staycation, and I wish to share my infatuation (and perhaps obsession) with the fictional town of Sea Harbor, Massachussets. I think I can guarantee that there are no spoilers here about the plots.
Death by Cashmere came into my life either when I picked it up on a “free” bookshelf at a local business…or perhaps my friend Montana Mary had gifted it to me. One day in September, I was out of library books so chose it from my at-home to-read shelf. I was surprised at how pleasantly written it is, as I often find the cozy mystery “theme” series tend to be sort of hack-ish. (I am not a fan of The Cat Who, the bed and breakfast series, etc). While I wouldn’t equate the writing with Ruth Rendell or PD James (who write the sort of darker psychological suspense that is usually my mystery choice), I enjoyed the author’s imaginary world so much that I would like to live in it. When I finished Death by Cashmere, I gifted it to the owners of the local knitting shop (Purly Shell at the Port), not realizing that I would grow to love the series so much that I wish I had kept it.
On November 21, I shared some entries that reminded me of the Ilwaco Saturday Market.
“The summer market at the pier was one of Nell’s and Birdie’s favorite Saturday things to do. It wasn’t just the smell of the fruits and vegetables piled high on the market stands. It was the people watching, greeting neighbors, the music and kites flying and icy containers of clams, lobsters, and oysters being sold by local fisherman. It was Peggy Garner’s stand, filled with freshly picked blueberry, rhubarb, and cherry pies, and Frank and Lucy Staff’s Mason jars of fresh homemade salsa—pineapple and raspberry and spicy tomato. And it was even the incongruous appearance of Joe Quigley, who appeared every summer in the seaside town and hawked his Chicago dogs, piled high with onions and mustard and pickles, from a tiny booth right beside the pier.”
Ilwaco Saturday Market
From Angora Alibi: “The summer farmer’s market was set up near the Ocean’s Edge, on the great green expanse of grass that ran from the parking lot down to the water’s edge. It was already crowded, with people pulling out their cloth bags and filling them with early summer produce—lettuce and spinach and arugula, slender stalks of asparagus, carrots, and baby corn.”
(For more about farmers markets in an inland setting, check out Montana Mary’s Yummy Montana blog.)
Patterns in the Sand offered some lovely descriptions of beachy landscapes.
the view from Annabelle’s restaurant:
A Fatal Fleece offered a further explanation of how the town fits together:
Further description from Angora Alibi:
From Murder in Merino: “The little Ridge Road neighborhood was part of a fishing community. Not the fleet captains but the crew. They couldn’t afford widow’s walks on their homes, so they built homes up on that hill, where they could look out to sea, waiting for the boats to come in.”
I noticed immediately how many restaurants the small town supported.
Annabelle’s Sweet Petunia Restaurant:
a teashop or two:
The Edge, the Gull, and more:
Polly’s Tea Shoppe:
“Polly Farrell’s Tea Shoppe was on Canary Cove Road, two doors down from Rebecca Early’s lampwork bead gallery. …A large stone teacup held the door open and allowed a light breeze to circulate air in the small space. Polly stood behind the counter, her smile as broad as her round face, waving them in. The tiny shop held but four tables, and today only one was taken.”
I made note of the eateries: The Artist’s Palate (clever name!), The Ocean’s Edge (known for its Cucumber Fizz cocktail), Sweet Petunia (the real name of Annabelle’s), Polly’s Tea Shoppe, Coffee (the coffee shop’s eponymous name), The Gull Tavern, Harry’s Deli, and more…and then a character enters a scene bearing a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee! That does imply a city more the size of Newport, Oregon instead of a small town like Long Beach or Ilwaco.
The Artist’s Palate is open long hours: “At noon, it would be filled with people craving burgers, and at night it rocked, with area bands performing and the wall of beer bottles meeting everyone’s taste. But in the morning hours, the owner didn’t mind if people just came and sat, watching the fog burn off the harbor. Sit, gossip, work on laptops.” (And drink coffee and eat homemade granola.)
In Murder in Merino, I found a further restaurant description. I was amused to see a Scooper’s Ice Cream, such a classic name that we have one in Long Beach, Washington.
“The line outside Scooper’s Ice Cream Parlor stretched down Harbor Road toward the Gull and the Ocean’s Edge.”
Sea Harbor’s proximity to Gloucester may explain why so many restaurants can thrive in its setting. It’s closer to some big cities than we are here; it’s almost a three hour drive from Portland, Oregon, to Ilwaco, and three and a half hours from Seattle.
Cape Ann, Maine
I found a mention of Gloucester being driving distance along the coast, and in The Moonspinners, the author’s acknowledgements explain more about how Sea Harbor is situated on Cape Ann. The closeness to larger cities explained why so many Sea Harbor restaurants could thrive.
From Murder in Merino: “The Fractured Fish [local band] has a gig over at The Dog Bar in Gloucester. I’m hoping that Captain Joey guy will mention us on Good Morning, Gloucester. Everyone on Cape Ann is reading that blog of his. It’d be great PR for the band.”
Not until the 7th book, Angora Alibi, did I came across a passage that made it clear to me how close Sea Harbor is to Boston. “It was the view that took [Izzy’s] breath away. In one direction, the skyline of Boston was a hazy landscape, and closer in, the long winding shoreline, like a serpent’s tail—Paley’s Cove, the artists’ colony, Anya Angeline Park. Nell walked over the the edge and looked to the right, out over the beach….”
This map shows the area between Boston and Rockport; Sea Harbor must be somewhere along that coastline. Probably near the town of Winthrop?
Sometimes it’s good to be able to get away from a small town. In my real life, a drive from Ilwaco to Astoria, Oregon, might provide the same experience as a drive to Rockport. From A Fatal Fleece:
Rockport sounds a lot like Astoria.
Back to reading the books in order:
The second book had arrived on November 23rd…
and heralded the opening of another restaurant:
The third book is set around Christmastime.
It perfectly captured what it is like to live in a seaside tourist town in winter (although we do not have much in the way of the frost and snow).
Sea Harbor has its own Christmas village tradition.
It sounds charmingly similar to Ilwaco’s Crab Pot Christmas Tree evening.
I waited impatiently for more of the books to come from the library.
At last, four more!
On December 2, I read The Wedding Shawl.
Nell’s back garden is evocatively described during the preparations for a wedding:
I stopped reading in order to Google yellow hydrangeas and found they apparently only exist when dyed.
Of course, the wedding food is lovingly described.
The friends in Sea Harbor eat well. “You can almost smell the ocean and taste the food,” says a blurb by Gumshoe.
Like me, Cass does not cook.
I collect recipes and give them to Allan in hope.
Other characters cook lavishly and share the results in a happy round of regular potlucks.
from A Holiday Yarn
from A Holiday Yarn
from A Holiday Yarn
from Murder in Merino
The continuing habit of small town gossip is often addressed. The most flagrant collector of gossip is Mary, a likable character who writes a news column for the local paper. I can guarantee that I would try to say nothing within her hearing that I wouldn’t want to see in the paper. Here she is on the local restaurant deck:
“Mary reached back and pulled over a chair from her own table—her unofficial reserved seat. Everyone knew the table beneath the leafy maple tree to be hers, the place she occupied nearly every morning in decent weather. Her computer on her lap, she sat there and composed her ‘About Town’ column for the Sea Harbor Gazette, the contents of which were sometimes gleaned from the conversations spinning around her on the crowded patio.”
“Nell held back a smile, as if anything Mary Pisano said would stay confidential. She was as well-intentioned as anyone on earth, but to Mary, secrets were meant to be printed in her column.”
“Nell and Birdie both looked at the younger woman, keeping their opinions to themselves. Experience had taught them how easily one’s words could make it into Mary Pisano’s chatty column.”
From Murder in Merino: “A dearth of gossip was not much of a challenge for Mary—she’d dig something up or applaud someone’s good deeds or expound on a favourite cause or pet peeve. The column would be written no matter how little news was circulating around the seaside town—and it would be read by nearly everyone in town.
Our local paper doesn’t have a column like that, thank goodness!
How small town gossip works (from A Fatal Fleece):
That’s what I don’t like about small town life: The way people’s business gets repeated, word for possibly inaccurate word, from one ear to the next, with the careful analysis of appearance and behavior. From A Fatal Fleece: “It was clear that the news was already rolling down Harbor Road. A tidal wave. News like this would take a nanosecond to travel through town.”
Usually, the gossip by the knitting group is kind hearted and never sinks into the realm of dissecting the appearance of others. (That could partly be because of a small quibble that I have with the series: Almost everyone, especially the women, is described with some variation of being traditionally attractive. I recall the words “tanned” being used a lot, and everyone seems to be fit or spry.) This passage from Murder in Merino is a bit of an exception and reveals how tough it is to be an incomer in a small town:
When I used to get out more and joined in the incessant gossip-fests at a local café, I tried (in hindsight, not as successfully as I’d like) to stick with what people had posted on Facebook, figuring that those tidbits were deeply interesting and were things the people actually wanted to share. (There’s nothing that puts one off gossip as quickly as finding out that one’s ownself is the subject of a mean batch of it.)
My best gossip story is that one day, I stood in the foyer of a Seaview restaurant and commented to a friend about a noisy helicopter tour that was bothering residents from Ilwaco to Long Beach. Within one day, I heard back about it from a local gardening client, who had heard what I had said from his friend in New York City. Someone in the restaurant had emailed the New York person, who had called the gardening client. Fortunately, all of them agreed with my point of view about the noise.
Gossip drives the mystery plots in all the Seaside Knitter books, and at least in a mystery, it serves a purpose other than just nosiness and schadenfreude: the inevitable catching of the perpetrator of the latest murder.
Speaking of murder, the question of the sheer number of murders in Sea Harbor is never discussed. The theme that weaves through the books is how much the knitting friends want to solve the latest one so that they can get back to a peaceful life. In A Holiday Yarn, they want to solve the mystery so that Christmas is not spoiled; in The Wedding Shawl, they must find the perpetrator before the wedding day, and in A Fatal Fleece, they long for “what the whole town wanted: a return to the slow, easy summer that they had waited nine long months to enjoy.” From Murder in Merino: “Three weeks to find a murderer. I refuse to have the Endicott anniversary party clouded by a murderer on the loose.”
On December 3rd, I went on with the next book.
I was pleased that the books now contained a character list at the beginning. Because I have a hard time remembering names, I’d been keeping my own notes. All the ensuing books have a list, a few pages long, at the beginning.
A Fatal Fleece‘s plot begins in a way that reminded me of some long ago happenings when I first moved to Ilwaco, when a “crazy” old woman was removed from her rundown house that stood on the main road down to the port. You can also see that the layout of the town is further described, giving me more material with which to visualize the setting.
A new community garden figures large in A Fatal Fleece, along with the gripping plotline about the old man.
I’m reminded of a community meeting that I attended in about 1995, when some locals were trying to shut down a Chinook-area RV Park where the trailers were poor and rundown. The people there really could not afford to improve their old trailers, and I was firmly on the side of “there’s no law against ugly” although I would tried to phrase it in a less judgmental way.
Despite the gossip and the upscale element that wants to force residents to conform, the heart of the town is kind. This paragraph reminded me of how, as a vacationer, I fell in love with the Long Beach Peninsula and soon left my city life behind:
The community garden becomes a running theme in the following books. Here, the shop cat in the knitting shop is included in the description of a garden themed window display:
On December 9th, holiday festivities let up enough so that I got to read the last two books of the series.
Angora Alibi has the best ever idea for an artists’ colony baby shower:
“In the center [of the room] stood a nearly life-sized wooden giraffe. …Today, it was surrounded by colorful books in all sizes and shapes. And along the walls, on the arms of chairs, and in open spaces between the guests were paper-maché figures, painted in brilliant colors, representing characters from the books: Ferdinand the Bull, the Cat in the Hat, Paddington Bear, and Winnie the Pooh.
She looked over at a group of wild things, grinning in all their glory, with Max in the center. ‘The Canary Cove artists have been busy.’
Her hands went to her mouth. Tears stung her eyes. The giraffe was an heirloom, she knew, a cherished one, and the sentiment behind the gift was enormous. Not only would her baby have a giraffe to look over him or her, but a parade of her favorite childhood friends to keep him from ever being alone during a lonely night. She’d be going home with a whole library of books and treasures, all from people who loved this new baby even before she arrived.”
The setting of the baby shower is in a gallery home and the garden beyond. “It was tucked away in the middle of wild roses and sea grass, nearly hidden from view except for the low garden lights along the pathway. Tiny sea urchins and mermaids, carved from wood or fired in an oven, were hidden in the grasses or hanging from small magnolia trees along the curved pathways.”
My cats loved these long reading days.
an autumn storm
I so look forward to the next book. They seem to come out once a year, often in May. For those of you who actually knit, each book comes with a knitting pattern (and I seem to recall that there are recipes at the back of the books, as well).
Author Sally Goldenbaum would like you to know about kascare. You will often find her characters knitting chemo caps for cancer patients or squares for Kascare.
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