HALIFAX — Mystery writer Edwin Hill is developing a following.
Most of the dozen or so people attending his talk about his second Hester Thursby novel, “The Missing Ones,” had already enjoyed his debut novel “Little Comfort,” and were happy to hear this newest work, too, strays into the realm of the creepy.
“Let me just ask, real quick — and there’s no wrong answer to this — who has read the first book?” he asked. Hands were raised around the room at the Holmes Public Library Saturday, Oct. 5. “A lot of you have already been introduced to the characters. … I have some repeat offenders who have come to see me before, which I really appreciate.”
Thursby, a Harvard librarian who stands all of four-feet nine inches tall, takes care of her 3-year-old niece, her non-husband Morgan Maguire and a Bassett hound named Waffles. She works on missing persons cases in her spare time.
Or, worked in missing persons cases.
“The Missing Ones” makes clear early on that Hester no longer does that kind of work, in fact she’s been avoiding working at all as she struggles from PTSD after a harrowing experience in the first published book.
Picking up 10 months after the end of “Little Comfort,” Hill was determined to reference things that happened in that book while writing “The Missing Ones.”
“Hester had made some pretty serious mistakes in the last book and I wanted her to acknowledge that,” he said. “I also wanted to show she had feelings of having been in a life-or-death situation.”
Hill referenced older books and TV series where the hero is shot in the shoulder in one storyline and it is never referred to again.
“I wanted the books to work together,” he said.
It opens on two small islands off the coast of Maine, loosely based on the real island of Monhegan. The prologue relates a ferry boat accident that caused a 4-year-old to go missing for a time and the island’s constable is at first credited with saving the boy. While he is dealing with town gossip about how that incident played out, another child goes missing.
“I always tell stories from multiple points of view,” Hill said. “In ‘Little Comfort,’ there are five points of view … In this book I used four point-of-view characters.”
He credited readers with suggesting story line changes, including more for Hester’s “not-quite husband” Morgan to do.
A failed attempt at publishing a book in the early 2000s left him discouraged until he found the kernel of an idea in the Christian Gerhartsreiter — AKA Clark Rockefeller — a professional imposter who kidnapped his daughter and was later convicted of murder. By 2012 Hill was back to writing with an agent by 2014 and selling it two years ago.
“You’ll see the seeds of Clark Rockefeller in there, but it’s not completely based on that,” he said.
A library is another source of his inspiration.
Hill’s grandmother, Phyllis Hill was the librarian in Whitman from the 1940s to the late ’60s.
“For a while, she was going to be a chef,” Hill said of Hester Thursby’s day job. “Then I thought she might be a psychiatrist — a lot of mystery series have psychology at their core — but there are a lot of people doing that, and they do it very well, and I thought let’s do something different.”
He said librarians are really curious people, who have resources available to them that are not available to the average person, especially in 2010 when he wrote “Little Comfort.”
He started with a lighter touch, writing that Thursby’s caseload featured whimsical cases such as long-lost prom dates or lost dogs.
“The novels are not light,” he said. “They wound up becoming much darker as I worked on them over time.”
One whimsical touch he retained was making Hester “clinically messy” and Morgan a “neat freak,” along with their caring for Morgan’s twin sister Daphne’s headstrong 3-year-old daughter Kate.
“The novel went through three or four different changes and stopped being funny,” he said. “It’s not funny at all, it’s a psychological thriller.”
“The Missing Ones” carries that theme over, as well. Hill read an excerpt from the book’s first chapter and answered audience questions concerning the researching, writing and publishing process, the challenges of writing a second book, and his third book. Set in Boston, primarily in Jamaica Plain, that book involves a for-profit university and is due out in December.
To flesh out the characters of three individual preschool children, hill put out a Facebook request to parents about what they noticed about their kids as they aged from 3 to 4.
“People were really generous with things they shared,” he said, including how they start to grow into more solidly and that they developed little obsessions.
“They listed off all these different things their kids had been obsessed with — bugs, and counting, Thomas the Tank Engine, and poop and peeing on trees,” he said. “If you have three 4-year-old [characters] they can end up merging together in your mind if they aren’t disinct, so I just assigned each kid an obsession.”