I was up the road at an apple festival when I saw a booth for a book called The Cape May Murders. Intrigued, I stopped in my tracks and talked with the author, Christopher Michael Blake, about his novel. This murder mystery, which takes place largely during Cape May’s off season, was an easy read and, for me, a page turner! If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
Below is our Q&A with author Christopher Michael Blake, who talks about his inspiration for the novel, his research process, his favorite mystery novel, and why he’s not afraid of tackling tough subjects.
What Inspired you to write The Cape May Murders?
I was the passenger in a car my wife was driving, and I saw a woman and her daughter standing on the street corner, waiting for the light to turn so they could cross. Without context, I asked why would that older woman claim that’s not her daughter? The idea for the amnesic portion of the novel was born. My wife, who had no idea what I was talking about, told me to go back to sleep.
Why did you choose Cape May as this setting?
I have always wanted to write about Cape May. It’s a beautiful place to visit. My wife and I find ourselves there at least four to five times a year. We love to walk the beaches and visit the antique shops. Cape May is a beautiful place filled with history and ghosts while staying an ideal family destination.
What beaches/ places did you use for inspiration?
I think Sunset Pavillion is the ideal spot for sightseeing and gathering inspiration. Cove Beach, of course, also. I am proud that all of the places in The Cape May Murders are based on real sites located in Cape May, including the Lighthouse, the WWII Bunker, Congress Hall, The Promenade, Fisherman’s Wharf, Washington Square, and Saint Peter’s by The Sea. The only place I took liberty with was the pizza place Biaggi’s, which is entirely fictional.
How long did it take you to write the book once you came up with the idea?
It took about four months of actual writing and two to three years of edits before I felt comfortable enough to publish this novella.
Could you tell us about your research process?
I did preliminary research on forensics and where the laboratories are located in the state for specimens to be analyzed. It also helps to have law enforcement in your family to question.
For me, getting the location and feel of Cape May was very important. My wife and I took numerous trips to the area, where I spent hours filming videos on my cell phone while walking or driving. This was also the first time I studied Cape May’s past. Using the books Remembering South Cape May by Joseph G. Burcher &; Robert Kenselaar and Joe J. Jordan’s illustrated book Cape May Point: The Illustrated History: 1875 to Present. The diagram included inside the book of the WWII Bunker was invaluable.
Were the characters based on real people?
No. When I write about individuals, I want to give them distinctive flaws. Browning is egomaniacal and selfish. He doesn’t care who he burns or how he attains his goals. But he shows additional character flavor because, at the end of the book, he wasn’t acting entirely out of self-interest. Biaggi is a loathsome greedy businessman. McNamara serves as the story’s conscious; he constantly warns Browning, who refuses to listen or heed his advice. Jennifer Martin is a complicated character who we are trying to solve what her angle in the mystery is. In all, it’s a fun collective of various individuals.
You live by the Jersey Shore. What is your favorite travel destination?
I am happy to say I was fortunate to visit Lord Howes Island in Australia many years ago. The people were friendly and exhibited a very small-town vibe. If I remember correctly, the island’s doctor was also the constable when I visited. There were no locks on the room doors which is odd for an American to experience. The food was also delicious, and the beaches were extraordinary. Locally, we spend a week in the summer in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
The story takes place in the off-season. Would it have worked if you’d set it during the summer?
Good question. I debated this topic while writing The Cape May Murders. Because of the influx of traffic and visitors Cape May experiences during the summer, adding more people as possible witnesses felt off to me. It also would have posed an entirely different obstacle for the police to contend with, dealing with a murderer while trying to maintain the public safety of tourists. Having the story take place in October, when fewer visitors are in the area lends an attitude of isolation and despair. Reflecting on this, I can still picture the grey skies hanging over Victorian houses as the days get shorter.
What sort of house do you imagine Clyde Browning living in?
Although he’s lived in Cape May for over thirty years and has made a decent living, I feel he wouldn’t be in one of the larger houses on the beachfront but rather in something smaller. Being a bachelor, I think a smaller two to three-bedroom cape cod would probably be more appropriate.
Your characters, Browning and McNamara, ate at a few places in the novel. Have you eaten at any of them?
I believe the line Biaggi’s has the best-pulled pork in all of South Jersey is the start of one of the chapters. However, Biaggi’s is an entirely fictional restaurant. When my wife and I visit Cape May, we love going to the Ugly Mug and dining at Congress Hall. Great food and reasonable prices.
Father and son Eddie and Tommy go fishing on the beach in Cape May. Is this something you do, and if so, where?
I am embarrassed to admit I have not been fishing since I was a teenager. However, I wanted to add things about Cape May to the book regarding its beaches that I just couldn’t fit in, such as the concrete boat, the SS Atlantus, and the railroad tracks, which only appear during low tide. I wanted to include these places, but it felt as if I couldn’t work them in.
What made you write the fishing scene in the book?
When I wrote the fishing scene in the book, I thought it was a symbolic passing of the torch to manhood for the son and possibly the father’s last attempt to try and bond with his son before losing him to the world. Time is always fleeting; the father was trying to capture this moment and hold on. I like to think when the son grows up and has a family, he’ll spend time fishing with his children. The same way his father did with him.
Do you have any experience with boats and docks in Cape May?
When I was younger, ten or eleven, I think I went out on a smaller boat, and we hit a rough patch of sea. The ocean was so fierce that one of the boat drivers on the main deck lost their seat overboard. Huddled below, we feared the driver would fall into the ocean and be lost. Fortunately, he did not fall in, and we arrived back safely. Since then, I have tried to stay on board larger vessels and only take the Cape May Ferry to Lewes, Delaware.
You hit on a few tough subjects. What made you want to touch on those in the novel?
If you don’t touch on the more challenging subjects, you’re not being honest. People have problems. No one is perfect. We are all complicated individuals with a multitude of feelings, and you never know what experiences someone is dealing with when you look at them from the outside. Whether it’s dealing with cancer treatment, growing older, discussing problems in relationships, having trust issues, loneliness, or hiding secrets, these tidbits of life make us unique and exciting. Trademark this: Life would be so dull if it wasn’t for all our problems.
You have some twists and turns in the Cape May Murders! Are you a plotter or a pantster?
A little bit of both. I always start with an outline, I have a clear idea of where I want to start, but I always deviate, and I find that the story gets better when I go off course of the outline. If I wasn’t sure where I was going, how could my audience guess where I was heading. As a result, I never experienced the ending I expected.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you cast as the main characters?
Netflix, I know you are coming to Monmouth County, so I hope you are listening! First, I would be honored if anything I published made it to the big screen. I think Clancy Brown from the movies Highlander and The Shawshank Redemption would be an excellent choice for Browning. I am a big fan of his work. But I also recently saw the movie The Banshees of Inisherin and thought that Brendan Gleeson was fantastic. For McNamara, I think a pair of underrated actors could be Jonathan Rhys Meyers from Vikings or Richard Fleeshman from The Ark.
Where do you like to go/ stay when you visit Cape May?
Anywhere that’s haunted. My wife and I try to stay in the haunted bed and breakfasts with supernatural elements. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any ghosts or spirits, but we are always looking.
What is your favorite book and why?
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Hands down my favorite. When I was in the eighth grade, I really didn’t enjoy reading, this book was the one that turned me around, and I still pull it out occasionally. I can pinpoint where my love of reading began and started with this book. Highly recommended if you haven’t read it.
What’s your favorite movie, and why?
I have two. Casablanca (1942) with Humphrey Bogart and The Thing (1982) Kurt Russell. For Casablanca, it’s not only that the love story doesn’t quite pan out for the characters, but it’s the dialogue that I always find memorable. There are so many memorable quotes from that movie. The Thing, it’s the direction, feeling of isolation, and special effects combined with the fantastic acting. They don’t make movies like this anymore because of CGI.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
Change my telephone number.
How do you balance writing and family life?
I don’t do it well at all. I think keeping things in perspective helps to a degree. I try to prioritize family, work, chores, and then writing. I am not always successful with keeping this list in order. But I have to remember my time with my daughter at this age is limited, and one day I will regret not spending more time with her when she was so young.
What advice would you give a new writer?
Every writer’s journey is different. There is no right or wrong path on your journey. I would, however, encourage every writer not to pay a publisher in advance. The publishing company should pay you, not the other way around. These publishers are often called vanity publishers and will take more money from you than you will ever earn. Try your best to avoid them.
Do you get stuck or have writer’s block? How do you overcome that?
Not so much writer’s block. Once I start writing, I am good at anywhere from one thousand words to up to twenty-five hundred words at a time. I seem to suffer from a more severe condition known as writing procrastination. I am still trying to work around this issue and will let you know how I solve this problem when I finish procrastinating.
And finally, what are you working on currently?
My next novel, Pyramid of the Parasite, will be released on July 1, 2023. It’s a science fiction thriller, and I think it may be the best thing I have ever written. After that, I am working on a clean fiction YA Witches Coven High School series. I am almost finished writing book two in the series. I hope to release the first three books sometime in 2024.