The case of the missing money, or how my mystery novel began with a mystery

These are the Cooling children on the front porch of our house, probably in the 1920s. The boy second from the right is Walter Cooling, who once stopped in to visit and pointed out that we still had the same clawfoot tub he grew up with! The front door is also the same. Thanks to Robert Hazel for the photograph.

These are the Cooling children on the front porch of our house, probably in the 1920s. The boy second from the right is Walter Cooling, who once stopped in to visit and pointed out that we still had the same clawfoot tub he grew up with! The front door is also the same. Thanks to Robert Hazel for the photograph.

THE HOUSE THAT WENT DOWN WITH THE SHIP began a few years ago with a knock on the front door.

Standing there was the gentleman I’d bought my house from a few years before—actually, it was his mother’s house and he had handled the sale because his mother had been living in a “home” for a few years. (She was 104 at that time.)

I showed him the new ceilings my wife and I had put up, how we had stripped the old wallpaper, and generally updated the 1913 house as much as our budget would allow. But the old man seemed a little antsy. Finally he got to it and asked, “Did you ever find any money in the house?”

“Should I have?”

“Oh, just askin’.”

He never really explained, but I surmised that what it came down to was that his mother didn’t have as much money in the bank as he thought she should. Like a lot of Depression-era people, he probably suspected that she had hidden it in the house or buried her cash in a Mason jar out back. (Question: would the Mason jar method be the opposite of online banking?)

Let me be clear that he was a good guy and he treated me and my lovely future wife fairly back during the sale, but in the end he hadn’t stopped by to talk about the best techniques for steaming off wallpaper. He really thought mom had hidden her stash in the house!

The closest we’ve come to any cool discovery of that sort was when my hardworking wife steamed off wallpaper in an upstairs bedroom and many layers down, found that someone had scrawled the date 1942 on the plaster wall.

But the question about hidden money got me thinking about the secrets that an old house keeps. The walls are witness to a lot of arguments, love making, joys and sorrows over a century. Someone was born in our house. Someone else probably died.

Those are the more ordinary secrets any old house keeps. But what if there was something more sinister that was hiding in (almost) plain sight?

It’s these “what if” moments in which so many stories get their start.

In THE HOUSE THAT WENT DOWN WITH THE SHIP the more sinister aspect is a body hidden in the wall and then discovered by the renovation crew 90-plus years later.

House FBThe first few chapters went through the Popular Fiction Workshop at the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. It was there that the amazing writer and workshop leader Kelly Link suggested a plot twist. Her advice was to have the narrator Tom sleep with Jenny, the star of their online home improvement show. That to me makes the story and adds just the right tension among the characters beyond the challenge of solving the mystery.

From there, the story evolved and I just knew it had to be set in historic Chesapeake City and that the Captain Cosden House would be loosely based on our own house and our own renovation adventures and misadventures.

So far we haven’t found any bodies—or any money for that matter, though I’m still looking! What I did discover was a story that needed telling.

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