Crime on the Half Shell
Barbara Ross’s cozy clambake mysteries.
“It all started with Nancy Drew,” says Barbara Ross CW’75. Growing up, she couldn’t get enough of the teen sleuth. Then came Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers novels, followed by a long detour into contemporary American fiction, starting as an English major at Penn.
That last phase had less staying power.
“At some point in the mid-’80s, I just threw a book into the wall and said, If I ever read another book where I don’t care what happens to a single person in it, I’m just going to die,” Ross says. “That brought me back to mysteries. I discovered that I loved mysteries and I loved series—I loved watching characters grow and develop over time.”
Today Ross is the queen of her own “cozy mystery” series, centered on a family’s clambake business in Maine. There are nine books so far, with the tenth due out this June. She’s also put out four novellas and two other novels in the last few years. And it all started the year she turned 60.
“My attitude is that this is very much my second act, I don’t have anything to prove, and I’m going to enjoy myself and hope that my readers enjoy themselves, too,” she says.
Devoted fans eagerly await each Clambake installment, and two books in the series have been nominated as the Agatha Award’s Best Contemporary Novel. Stowed Away (#6) won the 2019 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction, and Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody (her new series)was named a best book of 2020 by Suspense Magazine.
Ross insists that the plot twist isn’t that she became a mystery novelist on the cusp of 60, but that she spent some 30 years in the business world before that. Though she initially stumbled into the digital start-up scene fresh out of Penn, it turned out she loved it there. In the mid-1990s she cofounded WebCT, an early course management system that ultimately sold to Blackboard in 2006. Yet corporate America never felt like her natural habitat. “I always felt like a stranger in a strange land: an English major who had wandered into the wrong place,” she says.
For a moment, it looked like she might shift tracks. Ross took a year off work in the ’90s to write her first novel and quickly landed an agent—but then the book didn’t sell. “It really crushed me,” she says. “I think I wasn’t resilient enough to do this yet.”
She tucked the manuscript into a drawer and focused on WebCT’s rapid growth instead. After her company was subsumed into Blackboard, she slipped the pages of her first novel back out and reread them. “I was amazed at how terrible it was, and amazed I had gotten an agent,” she says. But the kernel seemed worth saving, so she overhauled the draft. “I like to say I rototilled it—and then I sent it back out.”
The result, a mystery called The Death of an Ambitious Woman, came out in 2010 through a publisher focused on direct-to-library sales. Three years later, Ross found a long-term home at Kensington Publishing and introduced the world to her fictional Snowden Family Clambake Company. In the series’ first book, Clammed Up, her protagonist has left a fancy corporate job in New York City to save the imploding family business in Maine. She also finds herself knee-deep in a murder mystery—but a cozy one.
“The cozy mystery is a subset of the traditional mystery,” Ross explains. “You can think of them as descended from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The sleuth is almost always an amateur and—in contemporary American cozies—usually female. She usually has some other job that occupies her, so that sleuthing is not her primary concern.
“Sex and violence take place off the page,” she continues, “and typically there’s no bad language—which is the one I find the most constricting, since I write about lobstermen and policemen.”
The author wasn’t born a New Englander, but became one shortly after marrying her husband, Bill Carito C’74, whom she met at Penn. Maine entered her life in the late 1980s, when her mother-in-law surprised the family by purchasing a bed-and-breakfast in Boothbay Harbor. Today Ross and Carito live in Portland.
She sees each of her clambake mysteries as an opportunity to “focus on something that’s seasonal, that’s related to the Maine mid-coast, and that I personally want to know about.” One book explores lobstering, another clamming, and another oyster farming. She has also examined the state’s unusual shoreline-property-rights regime and even its old ice business, all wrapped inside mysteries and woven into the lives of her long-running characters.
Ross thinks her chosen sub-genre resonates with readers for a simple reason. Inside a cozy mystery, “the world is essentially a good place,” she says. “Something happens that is completely disruptive and terrible, but by the end, justice is served.” That would explain why so many readers seem to turn to her books in times of stress.
Ross often hears from readers who have read her books aloud to dying relatives, who brought them along to chemotherapy treatments, or—over the past two years—who found them the perfect distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s just so meaningful to me,” she says.
“When you’re an author, you’re asking people to give you their most precious thing, which is their time,” she adds. “I always keep that in mind when writing: this person has very little time in their day, and they’re giving it to me, and I cannot waste it.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06