An Author Spends Three Weeks in the Nude Researching Her Caribbean Mystery:
Murder in the Raw
I first visited the island of St. Martin off a Queen Mary cruise, a Valentine's Day surprise from my husband. Half a day was not sufficient to sample all the charms of this Caribbean paradise: the food, the people, the Treasure Island appeal of the turquoise bays, not to mention the white sand beaches stretching invitingly beneath gently swaying coconut palms. Uniquely, St. Martin is split into a Dutch southern half and a French northern half, subject to Dutch and French law respectively, each side retaining its national language and customs, though English is widely spoken.
So intrigued were we by what we had seen on our brief visit that we returned for three weeks that same summer, this time flying in from Miami. Located midway in the Caribbean chain of islands, St. Martin enjoys perennial summer, with an average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Trade winds cool things off and combat humidity--a pleasant change from an oppressively hot and muggy July in Southwest Florida where we live.
With no idea yet for a storyline, I maintained a journal while staying at Orient Beach in the French-speaking half of St. Martin, arguably the finest beach on the island, and where clothing is optional and mostly dispensed with altogether. Although the naturist resort featured in Murder in the Raw is largely fictitious, I set it in the same area, and drew from the local sights and attractions, namely the butterfly farm and horse riding ranch. In my journal, I kept notes of weather patterns and tides, descriptions of wildlife and reef sharks, and amusing or noteworthy incidents. Like my protagonist, I traveled around the island in a rented Jeep and took a ferry to neighboring St. Barts--in my case solely for exploration and research, whereas my literary sleuth Rex Graves, a Scottish barrister, is pursuing a case.
In the novel, Rex is pleased to learn that it was a Scots captain in the Dutch navy-- John Philips--who founded Philipsburg, the Dutch capital of "Sint Maarten," in 1763. The port capital teems with tourists when the cruise ships dock. For casinos, duty-free shopping, and night life your best bet is Philipsburg. Also on the Dutch side is Princess Juliana International Airport (named after the crown princess of the Netherlands), the planes flying in thunderously low over the beach to land. The French capital, Marigot, whose outdoor market is depicted in my novel, retains a relaxed West Indies flavor. Restaurants on the French side are on a par with any in Paris. There are 30 alone in the small gastronomic town of Grand Case close to Orient Beach.
History relates how Christopher Columbus spied the island on November 11, 1493, and named it after the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours in France. The 37 square miles of land have been home to cannibalistic Carib Indians, sugar-plantation slaves, desperate convicts, rum-swilling pirates, and acquisitive Spanish, Dutch, French, English, and Portuguese forces in turn, belying St. Martin's new moniker of The Friendly Island, where everywhere you see smiling faces welcoming new incursions‚ÄĒof tourists.
With so much inspiring material and intriguing possibilities, St. Martin became the setting for the second novel in the Rex Graves mystery series. But what might my sleuth be doing there in the first place? Simply enough, it is at the request of the new owners of the Swanmere Manor Hotel in England (Christmas is Murder) that Rex Graves flies to the tropical island, all expenses paid, to help solve the case of a missing actress, which the French authorities have abandoned for reasons of their own. Much to his dismay, he finds that he has been put up at the exclusive nudist resort where Sabine Durand disappeared. A Scots Presbyterian and several pounds overweight, he almost turns tail for home.
Murder in the Raw is very P.G. in spite of the nudist aspect. I might add that going about starkers takes a bit of getting used to, but I was with my husband, which made it easier to parade about as Adam and Eve. I discovered that naturism is a culture advocated by individuals all over the world who believe nudity is healthy and natural. Certainly, swimming naked in the sea is a very liberating feeling. Plus, you can get an all-over tan.
It was a once in a lifetime experience for me‚ÄĒand my sleuth!
Christmas is Murder (Booklist starred review) by C.S. Challinor, Midnight Ink Books (September 2008)
Murder in the Raw by C.S. Challinor, Midnight Ink Books (May 2009)