Read LITTLE COMFORT with Your Book Club
I am so excited to let you know about my debut novel, Little Comfort, the first in the Hester Thursby Mystery Series. The story take place in Boston – Somerville’s Union Square, to be exact – with forays into other parts of New England, and centers on Harvard librarian Hester Thursby, who uses her research skills to locate missing people.
So why did I make Hester a librarian? Mysteries, no matter the genre, are about curious people asking questions, and to me, librarians are among the most curious people I know – solving big and small mysteries for their patrons every day. (My grandmother was a librarian, but more about that below!) I wondered what it would be like to extend that curiosity into the world of crime and missing people, and Hester was born.
The concept didn’t come without its challenges, notably the increasing availability of information to the average person. Even as I drafted and revised the novel – the idea came to me back in 2010 when Facebook and Twitter and “Big Data” were still somewhat new – I had to adapt both the story and the way Hester solved problems for her clients. With each year that went by, more information became available. By today, 2018, anyone who truly wants to disappear really has to work for it! But I liked the challenge, both for me as a storyteller and for Hester as an investigator. As I spoke to more librarians, I learned that these challenges mirrored many of the changes that have happened in library science in the past twenty-five years: more information may be readily available, but navigating that information and evaluating its qualities remain valuable skills.
The case at the center of Little Comfort focuses on Sam Blaine, who very much doesn’t want to be found. As a teenager, Sam fled his small New Hampshire town with his friend, Gabe, after a haunting incident. For a dozen years, Sam and Gabe have traveled the country, reinventing themselves as they move from one mark to another. Sam has learned how trusting wealthy people can be—especially the lonely ones—as he expertly manipulates his way into their lives and homes. Hester comes into the case when Sam’s sister hires her, and as she closes in on finding Sam, she unknowingly jeopardizes her own safety and the safety of those she loves.
Hester has spent a lifetime surviving by her own wit and creating a makeshift family where none existed before. That family plays a central part in this series, and her loyalty to those people ultimately drives her every decision. Hester lives with her long-time boyfriend, Morgan Maguire; Morgan’s three-year-old niece, Kate; and their basset hound, Waffles. Morgan’s twin sister Daphne is Kate’s mother and Hester’s best friend, and even though Daphne is physically absent for the story, that absence looms large. Hester both adores her niece, Kate, and resents the responsibility of caring for another person’s child, but in the end, Hester has to call on all her own strengths – her determination, her drive, her ability to problem solve, and that love of family – in a desperate fight to save Kate.
Thank you for taking the time to read Little Comfort. I hope you enjoy getting to know Hester as much as I did, and I would love to hear from you about librarians as investigators or anything that is important to you. Please be in touch!
The Power of the Librarian
My parents grew up in Whitman, a small town on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Before it was a town of its own, Whitman was a neighborhood in the larger town of Abington, called Little Comfort. I always appreciated the irony in that name and thought it would make a great novel title, so here we are!
My grandmother, Phyllis Hill, was the town librarian in Whitman from the forties through the early sixties. She ran all sorts of programs for children and adults that brought the community together. In addition to working as a librarian, she was a poet, publishing a collection called Poems for the Future, and conducted psychic readings and automatic writing. She retired in the early sixties and passed away in the early nineties, and at her funeral, it was amazing to hear people talk about how she’d inspired and helped them through her work at the library.
Even twenty-five years after my grandmother’s death (she’d be 124 this year), I’m still amazed by that reach. Recently, because of the publicity for Little Comfort, a man named Andrew Michael Rossi reached out to me through Twitter. I’d never met Andrew, thought he’d grown up in Whitman when my grandmother was still the librarian, and he wrote about how important she had been to him - how she had listened to him and seen him. And then he told me a story that I’ll cherish forever.
“Your grandmother lived on Washington Street, not far from where I grew up. She had written a book which I had read. I called her and she agreed to meet me. I was twelve years old. I decided I would do a watercolor of a seascape as a thank you. When I got to her house, she asked to see the picture I did for her. She held it up to a picture on her hallway wall. It was almost exactly the same. I kid you not! We talked about the paranormal. She showed me some of her automatic writings from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and then told me a young boy was present around me and he told her to tell me he was watching over me. My older brother Wayne was killed in a freak accident when a piano fell on him ten years earlier. All in all its an experience I will never forget. I just loved your grandmother to bits!”
Phyllis Hill may not have been your stereotypical librarian, but then, neither is Hester Thursby. I adored my grandmother in all her unique, loving ways, just as I love Hester Thursby.
When I write, I purposefully don’t imagine characters as Hollywood actors, but when I finish, I sometimes like to imagine who might play a character in a movie using both contemporary and classic actors. Here are some of my thoughts.
Hester Thursby is four-foot-nine-and-three-quarters inches tall and weighs eighty-nine pounds. She grew up with a mentally ill mother and knows how to fend for herself. When I asked other authors to review Little Comfort, many blurbs came back describing Hester as “feisty,” but Hester would hate being called feisty, just as she hates being called “Half Pint” or “Dear” or anything that hints at being dismissed because of her size. In the end, I asked my editor to describe Hester using only adjectives that could be attributed to John Rambo. Hester is tough, she’s smart, she’s resourceful (unlike Rambo, she’s also articulate), but she definitely isn’t feisty. She also couldn’t be played by Sylvester Stallone in a movie, but once I imagined Ellen Page in the role, I couldn’t picture anyone else.
One of the joys of writing is that it allows me to explore the choices I might have made in another lifetime. I love animals and sometimes wonder if I should have gone into veterinary medicine, so I made Morgan Maguire, Hester’s “non-husband” as she likes to call him, a veterinarian, one with a habit of bringing home strays. Morgan is handsome in a way that sneaks up on you, kind, and has red hair. He could be played by a young Ryan O’Neal or Ewan McGregor.
Hester’s niece Kate Maguire is three-years-old and hasn’t learned to use pronouns. She hears everything Hester says, though, and surprises with her recall - especially when Hester swears. Kate has curly, honey-colored hair, and Shirley Temple would easily steal the show playing her. In later books, when she gets older, I’d cast her with a young Tatum O’Neal or Jodie Foster.
Morgan’s fiery twin sister Daphne doesn’t appear physically in Little Comfort, but her presence is strong none-the-less. A few months before the story begins, Daphne abandons Kate, leaving the girl with a Post-It taped to her pajamas promising to be back in an hour. Anyone who played Daphne would need to show unbridled passion and energy, verging on mania, someone like Rooney Mara. Sean Young in her No Way Out days would have been perfect for this role too.
Angela White is a Boston detective who enters the novel about halfway through and befriends Morgan. Angela is tough and no-nonsense, and readers have responded so well to her that she’ll become a main character in future novels. I’d love to see her played by Regina Hall.
Animals play a central role in the entire series, and Waffles, a basset hound mix who’s a sucker for belly rubs, snuggling, and treats, is the main attraction. She could be played by any basset hound who responds to commands (good luck finding one!)
Little Comfort began with an idea for a character named Sam Blaine, a handsome, ruthless young man who strives to find a place to belong. Sam is named after a very sweet beagle who lives for chasing rabbits. In drafting, I purposefully used very few descriptors of Sam’s looks because I wanted the reader to imagine him in their own eyes. So I leave the casting on this one to you: who’s your ideal actor?
Of all the characters in Little Comfort, Gabe DiPursio surprised me the most. When I began drafting, he was a minor character in one scene. He eventually became one of the main point-of-view characters, one with a tender, flawed heart that stems from a deep well of loneliness. Gabe would have to be played by an actor who can move defty from creepy to kind, someone like Adam Driver.
Hester’s Top Movies
“Friday the 13th still played on the TV, though it was coming to the end where all the counselors but the Last Girl were dead…. but Hester had seen this movie dozens of times and didn’t need to watch to know what would happen next.... She closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of the movie, the music (ch-ch-ch-hah-hah-hah-hah) the dialogue, the screams. She could practically recite the script herself.”
- From Little Comfort
Even though Hester and Morgan have been dating for over a decade, Hester still maintains her own apartment in their multi-family house, one filled with stacks of VHS tapes. Hester uses the tiny apartment as a retreat, and she’ll often slide one of those VHS tape into the ancient VCR and watch on an even older TV set. Her favorite movies are all about women and girls overcoming extraordinary situations. Here are ten of them.
Friday the 13th (the original)
Gloria (the 1980 version)
The Little Mermaid
Entertaining at Your Book Club Event
“Hester… could have been a doll, with that porcelain skin and silken hair. She wore a fringed suede vest, gray wool leggings, and a miniature miniskirt. Her legs, in their own tiny way, went on for miles and ended in a pair of go-go boots that didn’t look like they’d stand up to the snow. An American Girl for the boho chic.”
- From Little Comfort
When planning food for a Little Comfort event, remember two things: Hester is tiny, and she uses that tininess to her advantage whenever she can. She also likes to drink. Keep things small - any finger food will do - and have a bottle of bourbon on hand. You’ll find a recipe for a cocktail below, but Hester prefers her whiskey on the rocks.
Elise’s Famous Crabbies
An unpretentious snack that Felicia Nakazawa always has on hand to serve to the Richards family’s Brahmin neighbors.
1 stick butter
1 jar Kraft Old English cheese spread
1 ½ teaspoon mayonnaise
7 ounce can crabmeat
½ teaspoon seasoned salt
6 English muffins
Blend the first 5 ingredients, and spread on split English muffins. Cut into sixths, and freeze on a cookie sheet. Store in a freezer bag until ready to use. Bake (from frozen) at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes until slightly browned.
Miniature Mac n’ Cheese Bites
Like many parents, Hester’s diet is dictated by what her three-year-old niece Kate will agree to eat. Hester enjoys mac n’ cheese as much as Kate does.
8 oz elbow macaroni
2 tbsp butter
¼ tsp paprika
2 tbsp flour
½ cup milk
8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
chopped chives or scallions, for garnish
Grease a nonstick mini muffin pan. Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
Boil a pot of salted water over high heat, then cook the pasta for 2 minutes less than the package says. Drain the pasta, then return the empty pasta pot to the heat and turn the heat down to medium. Melt the butter. Then add the paprika. Add the flour and stir the mixture around for 2 minutes. Add the milk, continuing to whisk - the mixture will be very thick, but ensure there are no lumps.
Remove the pot from the heat, then add the cheese, then the drained pasta, stirring it all together. Make sure the cheese and sauce are mixed thoroughly.
Fill the mini muffin cups (pack the cups well, or they won’t hold their shape).
Bake the mac and cheese cups for 15 minutes until bubbling.
Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes, then loosen the edges. Remove the mac and cheese from the cups and garnish with chopped chives or scallion greens. Serve and enjoy.
Chocolate Chip Waffle Cookies
In honor of Hester and Morgan’s basset hound, Waffles.
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped cashews
1/2 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
Combine the sugars, butter, egg and vanilla in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, salt and baking soda. Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar mixture, and beat to combine. Finally stir in the coconut, cashews and chocolate chips.
Preheat your waffle iron, and coat with oil or cooking spray. Drop the batter by tablespoonfuls, leaving 1 inch of space between the cookies. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until golden brown. Carefully remove to wire racks and cool completely. Dust with powdered.
Bourbon Maple Lemonade
Much of Little Comfort takes places in the wilds of New Hampshire, where maple syrup flows freely.
¾ cup lemon juice, from about 6 lemons
2 cups water
¼ cup maple syrup
Strain the lemon juice into a pitcher. Stir in the water and maple syrup, then add ice to the pitcher.
Fill a glass with a good amount of ice, and add 1 - 1.5 ounces of bourbon. Top with lemonade. Garnish with mint.
Recipe makes enough lemonade for about 4 glasses.
Raspberry Lime Rickeys
A New England classic!
1 lime, quartered
2 cups unflavored seltzer water
6 tablespoons raspberry syrup (recipe below)
Fill two glasses halfway with ice.
Squeeze two lime quarters into each glass, dropping the squeezed lime into the glass as well.
Top each glass with 1 cup seltzer water, then stir in 3 tablespoons of raspberry syrup.
For the Raspberry Syrup:
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup fresh raspberries (or thawed frozen raspberries)
Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Add raspberries, and cook until reduced to a thick syrup. Strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove the seeds, a cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Little Comfort is told from many points of view, and we learn about the story through different characters. Which characters did you identify with most? Were they all reliable, and are they always telling the truth to themselves?
Did you find yourself switching your allegiances to characters as you progressed through the novel? Do you think the author intended you to side with anyone in particular? Why or why not?
What do you make of Hester’s ambivalence toward Kate, and her relationship with Morgan?
There are a number of physical spaces in the story that help establish character (Hester’s apartment, Little Comfort, Lila’s house, Gabe and Sam’s Somerville apartment). Which was the most vivid in your mind, and how did the descriptions of the spaces move the story forward or enrich it?
Kate’s mother Daphne never actually appears in the story, but her presence looms large throughout the novel. How did Daphne’s relationship with Hester make you feel? How would you deal with some of Hester’s challenges if you were in her place? Would you make different choices?
People use each other to their own advantage throughout this story. Sam uses Gabe; Daphne uses Hester; even Felicia uses Wendy. Describe some of the ways characters use each other, from the typical to the criminal to the pathological.
Hester physicality is central to the story. In what ways does her physical self work to her advantage in the novel? How else does physicality play play out in the story?
Why do Sam and Gabe stay together? What does each of them get out of the relationship, and how does that change throughout the novel? What surprised you about the choices each of them made in the end?
Many of the characters in Little Comfort are searching for a place to belong. What does it mean to belong for a character like Hester or Felicia versus Sam or Gabe?
Why does Sam send postcards to Lila? Why does he write movie quotes on them?
One of the themes in the novel is staying versus leaving. Why do some characters choose to leave, while others stay?