Scenes of Crime: Lake Erie, New York

Today sees the paperback publication of The Kept, the wonderful début crime fiction novel from James Scott. This dark and brutal tale about family, love and revenge is highly atmospheric – thanks to James’s choice of setting.

In the winter of 1897, a trio of killers descends upon an isolated farm in upstate New York. Elspeth Howell returns home to find her family brutally murdered. The only survivor is her twelve-year-old son who witnessed it all. Wounded, frightened and with retribution in their hearts, mother and son set out into the frozen wilderness to track down the red-scarfed men who killed their loved ones in cold blood. Their journey leads them to a rough-hewn settlement on the edge of ice-filled Lake Erie, a merciless place where violence abounds.

We asked James to tell us what inspired him to choose such a setting;

‘When I was a child, my family would spend most of our vacations with my grandparents. We drove from our house in Massachusetts to visit my father’s parents in Syracuse, New York. The drive took three and a half hours, time that I often spent with a book. I was a precocious reader, and I was a fearful child, which was a bad combination. On those drives, I would often read stories of murder and deceit, and when I got a little older, Southern gothic tales.

I matched those stories with stretches of upstate New York I saw flying past the windows—rusted cars and leaning, decrepit barns, fallow fields and closed factories. I pictured us traveling on a map, the way an image of an airplane would trace a line across the continents in a movie, and the thing that awaited us at the end of our journey was the huge, steel gray mass of Lake Erie.

When snow came to Syracuse, which was often, it was different to at home in Massachusetts. It fell harder and if it found your cheek or your lip, it would sting, closer to hail than snow. My grandfather told me about lake effect snows, how the clouds gathered over the lake and then assaulted the shore. The whole landscape turned gray, and whiteouts were common. I found more terror in whiteouts than I did in the dark (I slept with my closet light on until I was nine or ten, though this was also partly to read late into the night) because it both lacked the definition of nighttime and muffled sound. Whiteouts cancel out all senses. All of that violence originated over the lake, twenty-six thousand square kilometers of shipwrecking waves and dangerous weather, which, combined with its too-perfect name, made it to me, easily frightened aficionado of frightening literature, the perfect setting for someone to slip away undetected, ripe for thieves, murderers and kidnappers.

It’s a wonderful, mysterious and sometimes dangerous place, and all of those qualities took root in my young imagination. The feeling I returned to again and again in the more than eight years I worked on The Kept was that of watching one of those lake effect storms roll in, and how frightening it seemed to me at the time, but what a great relief it must have been to someone who had much to hide, as does almost every character who populates the book.

Again and again Elspeth Howell has perpetrated one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, but her ability to hide it any longer is taken away by the brutal killing of her family. One of her sons, Caleb, survives, but he too holds family secrets. Together, the two of them wind their way across the frozen landscape of upstate New York, and there’s only one place that could hold the secret to their salvation: the shores of Lake Erie, where I discovered their story.’

Feature image: ‘Setting on Lake Erie, Ontario’, © John Ryan. Image taken from Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/5VHiYk) and used under CC.

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