Pictures from the Vacationland side of Maine would include boats bobbing in the harbor, visitors browsing in “quaint” stores, tourists chowing down on “lobstah.”
That isn’t the Maine in which Page Erwin have set their Sam Barrows mystery series.
Their Thoreau County, located in rural Down East Maine, is rife with darker issues such as drugs, abuse, and above all else, mistrust of those from away. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to the area to which the husband-and-wife team of Ross Erwin (his pen name) and Carolyn Page are referring.
Both Page and Erwin came to Maine from out of state, and they understand the tension between the new and the old residents that exists in the state.
“It’s important for the people of Maine to realize that if they want the state to grow, they might want to be more welcoming and accepting of differences,” Page said.
Sam Barrows is one of those from away. The sheriff of Thoreau County, he came to the post after a long stint at the police department in Portland (which may as well be in another state). He has married a local “girl,” Darla McClellan, a sea captain’s daughter and high school guidance counselor, and they live in his beloved aunt’s former house in Galway (the county seat).
Sam has enlisted the help of Frank Zucchetti, a former OSI investigator who, with his wife, Sandy, runs an organic farm in the town of Venice. Sandy, who was previously married to another lawman, isn’t thrilled by this idea, but she recognizes that Frank has abilities to offer Sam.
When “Bones of Contention” opens, Sam has problems with which to deal. He doesn’t trust some of his staff, especially Hal Hines, who is an old friend of Jake Ridley, who owns the general store and reportedly controls much of the drug trade in the area. Also, Darla is pregnant and very temperamental.
Frank has his own concerns, as Sandy has been laid up after back surgery. To help pay for her medical bills, they agree to sell a small piece of their land to the phone company for the site of a junction box. Frank is also taking flak from some of the locals for his position as a part-time detective with the sheriff’s department.
While poking around at the phone company’s construction site, Frank discovers some old bones, which are rumored to be linked to a former Mafia presence in that area. Soon, there’s a murder at the Peek-A-Book Trailer Park and then another at a nearby home.
Sam and Frank try to find any connections among the three cases, while Sam is under fire from the media for lack of results. Helping out on the cold case is Lt. Belle Whittaker of the State Police Crime Unit, Sam’s old PPD partner and lover, which makes things worse on the home front.
The energetic seniors unintentionally drew on their own experiences while writing “Bones of Contention” and its predecessor, 2007’s “Bloodsport at Hiram Bog.” They lived for 13 years in Troy, and have resided in Stockton Springs since 2006. Like Sandy and Frank, they are organic farmers who also raise chickens and love cats. Like Sandy, Page was married for years to a cop.
However, they started “Bloodsport at Hiram Bog” during a two-week visit to London, and wrote “Bones of Contention” in Albuquerque, N.M., where they lived from 2001 to 2006.
“You’re too close when you live in the middle of things,” Page said.
“We were curious about our expectations about living in rural Maine,” Erwin added. “Once you get away from it, you can ask yourself, ‘What do I like? What don’t I like?’”
Page is from New Hampshire and Erwin from Oakland, Calif. “I was less of an enemy, because I was an unknown,” he joked.
Both of the Barrows mysteries also delve into this confrontation between the newly arrived and the natives.
“[The newcomers] are looking for a way to belong, while the locals want to protect what’s theirs,” Erwin said. “There’s such a polarization in Maine between the haves and the have-nots.”
“A lot of people in Maine have had to sell off their land, and they resent that,” Page added. “The poorer the poor get, the more violent and desperate they become.”
Page and Erwin, who came to writing later in life, have long worked together. They began as poets, and headed up the semiannual Potato Eyes literary journal and Nightshade Press. They read their essays on Maine Public Radio, and wrote epistolary and historical books.
Avid mystery readers, they switched to that genre at the turn of the century. They were in Albuquerque to research a western historical novel, “End of the Line,” set in 1881 at the The Montezuma Hotel and Hot Springs in Las Vegas, N.M. This was inspired by letters that Page inherited written by her great-grandfather, who was house physician at the hotel.
“We tried to get it published as a historical study, but we couldn’t get anyone to move on it,” Page said. “So we decided, ‘Let’s kill a couple of people, and turn it into a mystery.’”
Their second book in the western series is almost done, and the third book in the Barrows series, “Deadly Thaw,” is half done.
The couple approaches their writing organically, and they don’t outline until after a work is done and they’re ready to shop it around.
Their fiction starts with their characters.
“The characters take on a life of their own, and do things you couldn’t predict,” Page said.
“We give our characters a problem and they have to solve it,” Erwin said. “In the first [Barrows] book, we didn’t know who the killer was until the very end. Then we had to go back and rewrite when we figured it out.”
Another of their skills is revision.
“Revision is everything,” Page said. “You have to keep trying and revising and wordsmithing.”
They write both together and separately, and read the entire book to each other, out loud.
“It’s important to us how they speak, what words they choose, what’s the cadence,” Erwin said.
The couple isn’t concerned about finding material for future Barrows mysteries.
“Much of what happens in the first two stories is true,” Page said.
“If you told the real stories [of what happens in rural Maine], they’re unbelievable,” Erwin added.
“Bones of Contention” is available at BookMarcs in Bangor, Left Bank Books in Searsport, BookStacks in Bucksport and The Owl and Turtle in Camden. It also can be ordered from any independent book dealer or Amazon.com: Hardcover (ISBN-10: 1591332532), $28.95; trade paperback (ISBN-13: 978-1591332534), $16.95. For more information, visit pageerwin.com.