Success for any artist is all about being able to make your art pay enough that you can keep working at it. Steve Axelrod said this to me one day over a pint at the Chicken Box. You might see him painting trim and gutters and window frames, making a living as a housepainter so he can keep writing.
I am not sure if he is a good housepainter, although I suspect he is, but I am sure about his ability to write a story, to make a world and people it with characters and plots enough to keep us turning pages and enjoying the company of the people in those pages.
The world in his books – and there are five of them, from Nantucket Sawbuck published in 2014 to Nantucket Counterfeit, published in 2018 – look a lot like the little island I live on. There are tourists and locals, social backbiting, class warfare, some people sell real estate and some work with their hands, some social climb and some are happy just as themselves. As it is in real life, it is all made more palatable by a sense of community.
Because these are mystery books there is also crime, most notably murder most foul. Overseeing it all is Henry Kennis, a poetry writing police chief. He has been in law enforcement for a long time but, as old timers say, he just came around Brant Point. Still, he is quickly becoming part of island life.
Mystery stories are all about resolution. Crime is chaos and readers wait for the detective to bring order to that chaos. The puzzle, the clues, the alternating viewpoints, are what drive the story. But it is the characters that keep bringing us back to read the next book.
There are plenty of books that take place on Nantucket, and there once was a television show that took place here. Nantucket is a place you view through specialized lenses, a different focal point whether you are a summer visitor, a native, a wash-ashore, or part of the immigrant community. This is not to mention whether your livelihood is dependent on the island having a certain marketable image, a certain sheen that does not exist in real life.
Mystery books are built on a sense of place. Think of Dashiell Hammet’s San Francisco, or Walter Mosley’s Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. As much as the late Robert Parker’s Spenser: For Hire series knew its way around Boston, Steve can navigate Nantucket, despite the shoals. You feel as if you might find yourself standing in line next to one of his characters at The Bean as you get your morning coffee, or at the Chicken Box as you enjoy and end of the workday pint.
You might even find one of his characters painting your house.