June 27, 2014
Portland’s 1990s bookmobile stars in staffer’s mystery series
Barbara Cantwell, a gift technician for University of Washington Libraries, is the co-author of “Corpse of Discovery,” the second book in a series of mysteries featuring “fiery-haired librarian Hester Freelove McGarrigle” and Portland’s 1990s-era library bookmobile.
She writes the mysteries with her husband, Brian Cantwell, an editor at the Seattle Times, under the name “B.B. Cantwell.” Barbara Cantwell answered a few questions for UW Today.
Q: This is the second Portland bookmobile mystery, featuring your book-loving, crime-solving protagonist, the first being “Murdermobile.” How did you and your husband come to create this character and series?
A: “Murdermobile” was actually started years ago when I worked at Multnomah County Library in Portland, Ore. My first job there was on the bookmobile. It was a dream job. I loved it.
But the new library director decided to stop that service, so I moved to the telephone quick reference service, and really missed the bookmobile. I always thought I could write a murder mystery — I’ve read hundreds — and found I had the perfect victim: the library director!
I wrote “Murdermobile” off and on for quite some time, always talking the story over with Brian. We made many a long drive from Portland to the Seattle/Puget Sound area to see family in those days and spent a lot of that time coming up with ideas for the book, and laughing a lot doing it.
Brian loved the story, helped me finish, and thought we should try to get it published. We got a lot of rejections saying it was well-written but not what that agent wanted, that kind of thing. So we shelved it.
Then came the advent of Kindle self-publishing. Brian and I updated “Murdermobile” a bit and last spring published it on Kindle and on paper on CreateSpace. It did fairly well. But more importantly, we really had fun doing it. So we thought, why not a series?
We came up with the framework for this second one over several weekends at our cabin in the San Juans. Brian has an excellent eye for detail and an editor’s insistence on meeting deadlines — that really helped get this one written and published this April.
Q: You two write these as a team. How does that work out?
A: I think being together for over 40 years has something to do with it. We share a similar sense of humor, and we are also both list-makers. We outline the arc of the story and then decide chapter by chapter how to fill it in, then talk about it a lot and take turns writing the chapters.
We write the chapters in order. After a few chapters Brian goes through and does an edit and we decide if we need to add in new bits or what.
I tend to be the big picture person and Brian is the detail guy. Together we write a good story. Brian has written stories on so many subjects over the last 35 years as a reporter and editor that he has lots of good suggestions for little tangents. For us writing is a fun indulgence we get to do together. We tend to weave bits of our own pasts into the stories.
The first one was a long labor of love. When we finished, we realized this had been too enjoyable to just stop doing. We decided we could write and publish another book in a year — and we did!
Q: Has your work at the UW informed your writing at all? If so, how?
A: I’m a UW graduate, as is our main character, Hester. We set the book in Portland because that is where I worked on the bookmobile — we have some ideas about maybe having Hester come up to Seattle possibly to do a class or something at the UW.
I have to admit that the library I made up in Portland, the Grand Central Library, does have some shades of Suzzallo in it. And I admit that some of the funny day-to-day things that happen in the libraries here might morph into a scene in the book with some tweaking. You can’t work in a library full of interesting people and not want to use a bit of that.
Q: What are your plans for the future of the series?
The third in the series is about to take its shape. We have chatted a bit about it and have a working title: “Baja Ha Ha.” This one will have a character who inherits an old boat in La Paz, Mexico, that needs to be brought up to Portland.
We actually live on an old boat we took to La Paz many years ago, so some of the sailing we did, and the characters we met, will be in this one. And some of the yearning to just let go the lines and set sail will be in it too!