24 January 2017

Meet my protagonist: Robert and Lillian

Mayhem at the Mount Baker Lodge

I know 1930 and the US might sound somewhat usual as a location and time, but when its a place that doesn't exist I figured it does fit unusual after all.  A few years back I moved to Bellingham, WA.  Almost into Canada and almost in the Pacific, the fourth corner they call it locally. It's a beautiful locale, the Cascade Mountains running to the east, the San Juan islands to the west, across the water I can see the Olympics when its clear, the Canadian Coastal Range is to the North.  The climate is temperate with the ocean there to regulate it, most the time at least. Shortly after I moved here I started seeing photos and mentions of the Mount Baker Lodge, but it didn't exist.  With a bit of digging I found it was one of those lodges built in the heyday, not quite as big as the lodge at Yellowstone, but the same idea.  Mount Baker has in years been the snowiest place in the US if not the earth.  With all that warm ocean air hitting 11,000 feet of solid stone it regularly gets 75 feet of snow in a normal year.  In the mid 1920's a group of people decided to build a tourist facility up in Heather Meadows, a valley below the snow line on a mountain that never fully melts.  It didn't have a road to it, but they persisted and the road was finished in 1926.  By the summer of 1927 the lodge was completed and with much fanfare opened.  For 7 to 10 dollars a night meals included you could live in the lap of mountain luxury.  The rooms were not that fancy when it came down to it, but with the setting few went to sit in their rooms.  A 100 foot main room with a giant fireplace decorated in a Native American theme, an 80 foot dining room. Observation tower.  It was so popular that after only a year or two they built an annex adding another 40 rooms.  Ugly people called that part, just a box compared to the original building. 

But 4 years after it opened, in the summer of 1931 a fire broke out and in two hours the entire building was gone.  The annex remained to house Clark Gable and Loretta Young a few years later when they filmed Call of the Wild.  But even that didn't last much longer.  By the 1950's winter entertainment was the push, skiing namely.  The annex closed, Heather Inn closed, a small restaurant known for its pies, and ski runs opened.  To this day there is nowhere to stay when using the slopes. No sign of the lodge remains.  

The hotel had caught my imagination, I just had to bring it back to life so I could kill someone there.  It's taken me some time though to find characters that fit such a location.  The first that fell into place was the murder victim.  A friend, another writer and college professor declared he would consider it an honor to be killed off.  Then it took figuring out why a seemingly innocent man would get murdered in a hotel where he knew no one. Finally using local history the real professor and the real history of the area gave a reason. 

The protagonist still took some time though, but finally they formed.  Lillian Halliday is a struggling Hollywood starlet.  Not on contract though which would provide her with reliable income during the depression. Just as she's finished her first starring movie role she returns to dance in a less than reputable place she had worked at to keep money flowing.  Once she worked in a famous New York club, but when it had to shut down just a week or so before the Stock Market crash she had taken a chance in Hollywood, but wasn't finding it easy going. When her employer at the theater objects to her wanting to quit, he ends up shot and Lillian runs.  The first train leaving is north, the first train after that is to Bellingham, and a bag boy mistakes the well dressed actress on the run for a guest at Mount Baker. Lillian just says yes, anywhere to hide so she can think.  While waiting for the motor coach heading to the Lodge, some 60 miles from town, Lillian starts to meet other guests especially the Professor.  Having grown up an orphan Lillian picked up the skill of Tarot cards in the orphanage and bored she plays with them.  When the professor comes up, he starts pulling cards foretelling his death.  The coach departure is called leaving her a bad feeling as they head up the mountain. 

There is a romance of course, which comes in the form of a Newspaper man from New York.  Robert Magnusson fought in the great war, and settled into the crime desk by the time the story starts. Originally from Montana he ran from his horse ranching family as soon as he could.  A night with him distracts her from the predictions the cards make until the next morning when the professor is found dead.  In an early snow storm the road is blocked until the fallen tree can be removed, they're trapped with a killer.

I know Lillian and Robert are the main characters, but the Mount Baker Lodge has always seemed as much of a participant in the story as anyone else.  I just had to bring it to life once more.  I should have the second of my homages set in Bellingham finished soon, the city of subdued excitement. I figured we needed much more excitement so murder, spies, dames on the run have all livened things up.  Murder beside the Salish Sea set 15 years later at the end of WW2 was the first and the main character of that one makes a brief appearance in Mayhem.

Jennifer Mueller 
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya a few years back I traveled quite a bit and now I just wish I was. A lot of the places I've written about I've been to, a lot of them I haven't. Rafting on the Nile in Uganda, living in a Montana ghost town, Puerto Rican beaches, African safaris, Mayan ruins, European youth hostels, forts on the Ghana coast all fill my scrapbooks. I still travel in my head every time I write even if I don't get out as much as I wish. I currently live in the Pacific Northwest and look forward to filling many more pages.

More information can be found at www.jennifermuellerbooks.com