Beachcombing For Bodies In Loomis' Provincetown Author Jon Loomis says Provincetown, Mass., is the perfect setting for his series of crime novels; the funky beach town is so crazy in the summer that it's impossible to create a character who is over the top.
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Beachcombing For Bodies In Loomis' Provincetown

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Beachcombing For Bodies In Loomis' Provincetown

Beachcombing For Bodies In Loomis' Provincetown

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Continuing with our summer series Crime in the City, we're headed for a resort town on Cape Cod. Provincetown is right at the end of the cape. The Pilgrims paused there on their way to Plymouth Colony but they wouldn't recognize the place now. For many years, P-Town has welcomed gay men and lesbians every summer. Now it's become the scene of the crimes committed in John Loomis' new series of books.

(Soundbite of splashing waves)

WERTHEIMER: Looking at Herring Cove early in the morning with nobody around but the odd seagull pacing the beach, John Loomis pointed out the place where the corpse of a cross-dresser is found, in his book "Mating Season."

Mr. JOHN LOOMIS (Author): You can sort of see those dunes back there - the first body, Reverend Ron, turns up back in those dunes there wearing a dress and causes a bit of a stir. It seemed like a good place to dump a body to me. When you write these books, you have to think about stuff like that.

WERTHEIMER: Turns out this Cape Cod town is filled with tension in Loomis' books. A poet and a college professor with an ear for comedy, Loomis writes about the mostly gay summer people versus the mostly straight year-rounders, people who want the gray-shingled old ways preserved and developers who want to build on every bit of beachfront. He says even this beautiful beach is divided.

Mr. LOOMIS: We're kind of standing in the middle of the family beach, and further down is the lesbian beach and then way beyond that, you see where that little point is sticking out, that's kind of the gay man's beach. It's a funny little segregation but it seems to work for everyone.

WERTHEIMER: In real life it works, in these novels not so much. Loomis heaps up the bodies in peaceful, playful P-Town.

Mr. LOOMIS: There's a murder here maybe once every seven years, seven or eight years. They don't happen very often.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOOMIS: So when you have a book like my first one that's got four or five bodies in it in the space of a few days, people are like, ooh, that's kind of crazy. But it's fiction.

WERTHEIMER: In his first book, "High Season," Loomis describes the grisly death of developer Serena Hench. His detective, with an apt old New England name, Frank Coffin, is the son of a sea captain, Yankee born and bred. He searches her beautiful trophy house on the bluffs, well aware of the differences between the newcomers and the natives. Here's John Loomis, reading from the book.

Mr. LOOMIS: Inside, Coffin found himself thinking like a real estate ad. The cathedral-like spaces of the living area afford panoramic water views. In fact, the banks of floor-to-ceiling windows afforded an almost 360-degree view of the outer Cape, Long Point, the harbor, North Truro and Corn Hill. Coffin let himself out, climbed into the Dodge, which bucked and coughed before thundering to life and backed down the long, steep driveway. Serena's house was less than a mile from Coffin's neighborhood, but she might as well have lived in a different universe. There was no panoramic view from Coffin's house, no Motherwell prints artfully arranged. His windows all looked out at other people's houses, shingled in gray cedar, packed in tight.

WERTHEIMER: The fishing fleet that sailed out of Provincetown's harbor is long gone. On Commercial Street there's only one townie bar left, and one diner on Bradford Street, short on cute but long on blueberry pancake, so a favorite. In the books and in reality, the locals are totally dependent upon the summer visitors, who eat in the very good restaurants, shop in the very cute boutiques, buy biscuits at the dog bakery, and jam the main street of town.

Mr. LOOMIS: The thing you have to think about in this town is that off-season the population is about 3,000. High season it goes up to as many as 60,000 on a busy weekend - 20 times, you know. It's unsettling in a way. And you say - you want to tell them to go home, but to leave their wallets, because we need - we need the money.

WERTHEIMER: Provincetown also works for a novelist, Loomis says, because the town in summer is so crazy that it's impossible to create a character who is over the top. He mentioned Miss Ellie, a local man with long blonde hair and a miniskirt, singing show tunes with a karaoke box in front of Town Hall. But when we started down Commercial Street, a fellow diner customer stopped us.

Mr. BOB WALSH: Listen, I heard you chatting at breakfast this morning about Miss Ellie.

Mr. LOOMIS: Yeah.

Mr. WALSH: Miss Ellie's had the operation, so she wouldn't want to hear you say, you know, it's a fellow.

Mr. LOOMIS: Oh, okay.

Mr. WALSH: But just - you know, they made a movie on Miss Ellie last year that was at the film festival.

Mr. LOOMIS: No kidding.

Mr. WALSH: Yeah, it's a great short.

Mr. LOOMIS: Wow.

Mr. WALSH: But Miss Ellie is kind of…

Mr. LOOMIS: The full - yeah.

Mr. WALSH: Miss Ellie is a lady.

Mr. LOOMIS: Miss Ellie is Miss Ellie.

Mr. WALSH: Yeah. So if you're introduce them to Miss Ellie later on, you don't want to say guy in a dress. Miss Ellie is…

Mr. LOOMIS: Got it.

Mr. WALSCH: Living the dream.

Mr. LOOMIS: Living the dream. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: That helpful man was Bob Walsh, who brings his wife to Provincetown every year. In fact, Miss Ellie was performing that day in her usual venue.

(Soundbite of song, "More")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) More than the greatest love this world has known…

WERTHEIMER: That evening we went to Provincetown's famous drag queen show at the Crown and Anchor on Commercial Street, featuring a beautiful barker out front in black sequins and very large, very high heels.

Unidentified Woman: Showgirls, showgirls, see showgirls. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, right here at the Crown and Anchor, a $500 cash prize for best act.

(Soundbite of coughing)

Unidentified Woman: Audience decides who wins, it's showgirls.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

WERTHEIMER: We saw part of the show but sadly can't share it with you. It's mostly a language question.

(Soundbite of splashing waves)

WERTHEIMER: Back on the beach, John Loomis told us he has a couple more P-Town Frank Coffin thrillers in the works using real events as a starting point, including a fire at the Crown and Anchor, which actually burned to the ground a few years ago.

Mr. LOOMIS: Everyone worried that the entire town of course was going to go up because these great pieces of burning debris were sort of floating through the air. We all stood on the beach and watched it burn down, and the drag queens wept because their clothes, all their outfits, their beautiful outfits burned up in the fire at the Crown and Anchor.

(Soundbite of splashing waves)

WERTHEIMER: That image, Loomis says, stayed with him. Loomis likes Provincetown as a setting for murder because it's dealt with newcomers versus residents since the pilgrims swiped corn from the Indians. He makes that conflict very comical and very dangerous in his version of P-Town. Perhaps the details differ from grittier cities, but the motives would work anywhere - sex, politics and real estate.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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