NYC Sleuths in the Hamptons by Elizabeth Zelvin
In some ways, the beaches of the Hamptons in Eastern Long Island, a hundred miles from New York City, resemble Florida beaches: same white sand, same ocean rolling in, same sun turning the unwary, and especially the fair-skinned, “red as a lobster in a pot of boiling water in about the same time as it takes the lobster,” as someone remarks in Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my new mystery featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends. In other ways, not so much: northern beaches aren’t fringed with palm trees, the Atlantic is jade green rather than turquoise, and the water is a lot colder. A lot.
When I wrote the first book, Death Will Get You Sober, I imagined a series that would alternate between New York City settings and what we New Yorkers call “out of town.” More experienced authors quickly enlightened me: if a publisher bought a New York series, they would want every story to take place in New York, on the premise that readers, too, would buy the next book and the one after that for the pleasures of revisiting the familiar haunts of familiar characters. So the first and second books about Bruce and Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius, as well as the four published stories, were set in Manhattan, with excursions on the subway to Brooklyn as close as they get to out of town. (Bruce takes a quick trip to Dayton, OH in the first book, but he doesn’t have to like it.)
My book ideas tend to start with titles, and from the very beginning, I knew I wanted to write about the Hamptons, a resort area that stretches along the south shore of Long Island about 45 miles from Westhampton Beach to Montauk. I meant to use it as a setting whether or not the series made it to Death Will Extend Your Vacation. The alternative title I had in mind was A Season in Deathhampton. The Hamptons abound in cutesy names. The bookstore is Bookhampton (an excellent indie, family owned, with branches in East Hampton, Sag Harbor, and Southampton). There’s a Cashmerehampton and a Pet Hampton. And I always get a chuckle when, on my run around my neighborhood, I pass a house whose owners must be Abrams, Abraham, or Abrahams: the sign on their driveway says “Abrahampton.”
What publishers (some of whom, I bet, have homes in the Hamptons themselves or go there to visit) have to understand is that in real life, New Yorkers never stay in New York. Stimulating as living cheek by jowl with eight million people is, every once in a while we’ve got to get out. We want to see a little green, breathe a little air, get a little elbow room. Getting out of town is as much a part of us as our attitude and the way we say “New Yawk.” So in locating a New York book in the Hamptons, I’m simply being true to my setting. In fact, the Hamptons are a playground for vacationing New Yorkers, whether they stay in mansions on the dunes or flimsy little ranch houses on half an acre like the one we bought twenty years ago so I could garden, hole up with my writing, and get to the beach.
When Bruce ends up in detox on the Bowery at the beginning of Death Will Get You Sober, he hasn’t been out of town in years. Alcoholism tends to limit one’s horizon. So a summer in a clean and sober group house in the imaginary Hampton that, after much reflection, I named Dedhampton (known locally as Deadhampton) is one of those new experiences that Bruce has to go through sober as his character grows and changes, like having relationships, feeling his feelings, and figuring out what to do with his life.
I had yet another good reason for writing a Hamptons mystery. The traditional whodunit works best in a limited setting, where the amateur sleuth knows most of the people and can easily find excuses to ask them questions. That’s why so many of them are set in small towns. My books feature personal crimes. The victims, the suspects, and many of the witnesses all know each other. But it’s not realistic to expect the investigators—Bruce, Barbara, and Jimmy—to know them all. I’ve been living in my apartment building for almost 45 years, and I don’t know the names of some of the five neighbors on my floor. I recognize three of them to say hello to in the elevator (and a fourth when she has her dog with her). I’ve never been in any of their apartments. Writing about amateur sleuthing in a big city is a challenge that never goes away. A group house at the beach, on the other hand, has as much potential for a murder as an English country house weekend in the Golden Age of mystery. So I went for it, and Death Will Extend Your Vacation is the result.
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York psychotherapist, a three-time Agatha Award nominee, and author of the mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. The third book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is just out, and “Death Will Tank Your Fish” was a 2011 Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. Liz has also just released a CD of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. She summers at the poor end of the Hamptons.