Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Join as a sustainer and support independent local news for your community.

Murder And Mystery In An Idyllic Cape Cod Town


Provincetown, at the far tip of Cape Cod, would seem a perfect place to spend a summer day. The resort town has long been a destination for artists and writers, as well as gays and lesbians. And in the books of author Jon Loomis Provincetown is also the setting for mystery - not to mention murder. In today's encore presentation of our series Crime in the City, NPR's Linda Wertheimer takes us to P-town where she met Jon Loomis a few years back.


LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Looking at Herring Cove early in the morning with nobody around but the odd seagull pacing the beach, Jon Loomis pointed out the place where the corpse of a cross-dresser is found in his book "Mating Season."

JON LOOMIS: You can sort of see those dunes back there. The first body, Reverend Ron, turns up back in those dunes there wearing a dress, and causes a bit of a stir. It seemed like a good place to dump a body to me. When you write these books you have to think about stuff like that.

WERTHEIMER: It turns out this Cape Cod town is filled with tension in Loomis's books. A poet and a college professor with an ear for comedy, Loomis writes about the mostly gay summer people versus the mostly straight year-rounders - people who want the gray shingled old ways preserved and developers who want to build on every bit of beachfront.

He says even this beautiful beach is divided.

LOOMIS: We're kind of standing in the middle of the family beach, and further down is the lesbian beach and then way beyond that, you see where that little point is sticking out, that's kind of the gay men's beach. It's a funny little segregation, but it seems to work for everyone.

WERTHEIMER: In real life it works - in these novels not so much. Loomis heaps up the bodies in peaceful, playful P-Town.

LOOMIS: There's a murder here maybe once every seven years, seven or eight years. They don't happen very often.


LOOMIS: So when you have a book like my first one, that's got four or five bodies in it in the space of a few days, people are like, ooh, that's kind of crazy. But it's fiction.

WERTHEIMER: In his first book, "High Season," Loomis describes the grisly death of developer Serena Hench. His detective, with an apt old New England name, Frank Coffin, is the son of a sea captain, Yankee born and bred. He searches her beautiful trophy house on the bluffs, well aware of the differences between the newcomers and the natives. Here's John Loomis, reading from the book.

LOOMIS: Inside, Coffin found himself thinking like a real estate ad. The cathedral-like spaces of the living area afford panoramic water views. In fact, the banks of floor-to-ceiling windows afforded an almost 360-degree view of the outer Cape, Long Point, the harbor, North Truro and Corn Hill.

Coffin let himself out, climbed into the Dodge, which bucked and coughed before thundering to life and backed down the long, steep driveway. Serena's house was less than a mile from Coffin's neighborhood, but she might as well have lived in a different universe. There was no panoramic view from Coffin's house, no Motherwell prints artfully arranged. His windows all looked out at other people's houses, shingled in gray cedar, packed in tight.

WERTHEIMER: The fishing fleet that sailed out of Provincetown's harbor is long gone. On Commercial Street there's only one townie bar left, and one diner on Bradford Street, short on cute but long on blueberry pancakes, so a favorite. In the books and in reality, the locals are totally dependent upon the summer visitors, who eat in the very good restaurants, shop in the very cute boutiques, buy biscuits at the dog bakery, and jam the main street of town.

LOOMIS: The thing you have to think about in this town is that off-season the population is about 3,000. High season it goes up to as many as 60,000 on a busy weekend - 20 times, you know. It's unsettling in a way. And you say - you want to tell them to go home, but to leave their wallets, because we need - we need the money.

WERTHEIMER: Provincetown also works for a novelist, Loomis says, because the town in summer is so crazy that it's impossible to create a character who is over the top. He mentioned Miss Ellie, a local man with long blonde hair and a miniskirt, singing show tunes with a karaoke box in front of Town Hall. But when we started down Commercial Street, a fellow diner customer stopped us.

BOB WALSH: Listen, I heard you chatting at breakfast this morning about Miss Ellie.


WALSH: Miss Ellie's had the operation, so she wouldn't want to hear you say, you know, it's a fellow.


WALSH: But just - you know, they made a movie on Miss Ellie last year that was at the film festival.

LOOMIS: No kidding.

WALSH: Yeah, it's a great short.


WALSH: But Miss Ellie is kind of...

LOOMIS: The full - yeah.

WALSH: Miss Ellie is a lady.

LOOMIS: Miss Ellie is Miss Ellie.

Yeah. So if you introduce them to Miss Ellie later on, you don't want to say guy in a dress. Miss Ellie is...

Got it.

WALSH: ...living the dream.

LOOMIS: Living the dream. Thank you.


That helpful man was Bob Walsh, who brings his wife to Provincetown every year. In fact, Miss Ellie was performing that day in her usual venue.


MISS ELLIE: (Singing) More than the greatest love this world has known...

WERTHEIMER: That evening we went to Provincetown's famous drag queen show at the Crown and Anchor on Commercial Street, featuring a beautiful barker out front in black sequins and very large, very high heels.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Showgirls, showgirls, see showgirls. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, right here at the Crown and Anchor, a $500 cash prize for best act. Audience decides who wins, it's showgirls.


WERTHEIMER: We saw part of the show but sadly can't share it with you. It's mostly a language question.


WERTHEIMER: Back on the beach, John Loomis told us he has a couple more P-Town Frank Coffin thrillers in the works, using real events as a starting point, including a fire at the Crown and Anchor, which actually burned to the ground a few years ago.

LOOMIS: Everyone worried that the entire town of course was going to go up because these great pieces of burning debris were sort of floating through the air. We all stood on the beach and watched it burn down, and the drag queens wept because their clothes, all their outfits, their beautiful outfits, burned up in the fire at the Crown and Anchor.

WERTHEIMER: That image, Loomis says, stayed with him. Loomis likes Provincetown as a setting for murder, because it's dealt with newcomers versus residents since the Pilgrims swiped corn from the Indians. He makes that conflict very comical and very dangerous in his version of P-Town. Perhaps the details differ from grittier cities, but the motives would work anywhere - sex, politics and real estate.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Linda Wertheimer with an encore presentation of Crime in the City. We do want you to know, that Miss Ellie, one of our favorite characters from Linda's trip to Provincetown, passed away last year. When our series resumes on Monday we'll visit another seaside resort in England. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renée Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.