Books & Authors: A whodunit is inspired by a real Vermont murder

March 18, 2001

BY MELISSA MACKENZIE

COLD COMFORT, by Don Bredes (Harmony Books, 245 pp., $22)

Town Constable Hector Bellevance farms vegetables when he is not serving court papers or enforcing canine ordinances. For the past year, after returning from Boston, where his career as a cop and his marriage ended, he has opted for the peaceful life of his hometown. He lives in a classic Vermont village overlooking a lake near the Canadian border.

But his peace vanishes one September day, when he phones his wealthy neighbor, Otto Morganthau, who lives with his wife, Gaea, in a magnificent glass A-frame. No reply. Bellevance is about to hang up when finally someone answers. But the voice belongs to his own half-brother, Spud, a 28-year-old dairy farmer, and Spud sounds scared. “The Morganthaus! Somebody killed them!”

In Don Bredes’ fast-moving mystery novel – the first of a new Vermont-based series starring Hector Bellevance – it soon develops that Spud, an unhappily married man, had been having an affair with Gaea. He had originally discovered the couple’s machine-gunned bodies three days earlier, when he had stopped by, and he left a footprint in the garden. Looking in the window, he had initially thought the couple might have been up to “something kinky,” lying there as they were, so he hurried away.

Bellevance’s task, of course, is to solve the mystery and clear his brother.

Although “Cold Comfort” is fiction, the idea for the book came from a still-unsolved double homicide in Jay, in 1984, when a couple was brutally murdered at home.

A Newport dentist, a friend of Bredes, had become concerned when the couple missed a Monday appointment. When he heard nothing from them, he impulsively visited their chalet, looked through a window and saw the woman lying naked on the floor. The dentist assumed something kinky was going on and hurried away. When he returned two days later, the bodies were still there, whereupon he went to the police. As a result of the delay, he was temporarily a prime suspect.

The similarities end there, according to Bredes. “Nothing about the actual crime was used in the novel. The story came out of my imagination, but my friend’s plight got me going,” he said recently.

Although the beginning of the novel also eerily mirrors the more recent Zantop murders in Etna, N.H. – a slain couple, a table set for dinner, a footprint – the fictional victims in “Cold Comfort” share nothing with them but timing.

Bredes, 53, a screenwriter (“Where the Rivers Flow North” and “Stranger in the Kingdom,” written with filmmaker Jay Craven) and the author of two previous, well-received novels (“Hard Feelings” and “Muldoon”), worked on the book for several frustrating years. “This is the most intricately plotted novel I’ve tried to do. Finally, it came together,” he said.

His task was particularly intense because he was working on the screenplay for “Stranger in the Kingdom,” a film based on the novel by Howard Mosher, at the same time. He credits Mosher, a longtime friend, for helping him with “Cold Comfort.”

In the original draft, Spud was the protagonist. Faced with accusations by law enforcement officials, he decides he must solve the double murder himself. The result was the story of a dairy farmer sort of “blundering about,” Bredes said.

“Mosher said, ‘You need a detective. This is genre stuff. You can’t go against the genre,'” Bredes said.

By coincidence, he and Mosher both arrived in Vermont in 1969. Both taught at Lake Region Union High School in Orleans. Both are graduates of Syracuse University. Both wanted to write.

Bredes, whose essays and stories have been published in many literary journals, took time off from teaching to get a master’s in fine arts in fiction at the University of California at Irvine. On his return to Vermont, he lived in Burlington and worked at Carbur’s Restaurant for two years while he wrote “Hard Feelings,” his award-winning first novel.

“That was a big book. I made some money, so I bought some land in the Northeast Kingdom and built a house,” he said, referring to his home in Wheelock, near St. Johnsbury, where he lives with his wife, Eileen Boland, and their daughter.

“Cold Comfort” is more a literary crime novel than a police-procedural, that genre of mystery writing where the hero, usually a professional law-enforcement officer, goes step by step in solving crimes.

That said, the projected series promises to contrast favorably with the southern Vermont, Brattleboro-based police-procedural mysteries written by Newfane author Archer Mayor (“The Skeleton’s Knee,” “The Ragman’s Memory” and nine other Joe Gunther books).

Bredes, in other words, is not poaching on Mayor’s turf, stylistically or geographically.

Although somewhat crowded with plot twists, this well-written tough-talking novel and its sharply drawn characters will please mystery book lovers.

 

Melissa MacKenzie writes about books and authors for Vermont Sunday Magazine.

 

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