I am a big fan of mysteries and so was delighted when I found out that there was a series of mysteries that revolved around antique prints. This is the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series written by Lea Wait, an antique print dealer from Maine. Lea is a fourth generation antiques dealer who started her own business in 1977. Lea lives in Maine and does antique shows, as well a writing both her mystery series and historical novels for children.
Lea began her print series with Shadows at the Fair, which was a finalist for the prestigious Agatha Award for Best First Traditional Mystery in 2002. I have found the books, which feature an antique print dealer named Maggie Summer, to be well written, good mysteries, and a lot of fun. I especially enjoy the way that prints play a part in the stories and Lea’s accurate description of the world of antique dealers.
You can read more about Lea and her books on her web site, but she kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog.
CWL: How did you come to start writing antique print mysteries?
LW: I've always supported myself by writing, but I for many years I wrote corporate nonfiction. I wrote my first Shadows Antique Print Mystery to prove to myself I could write a full-length novel. Then, in 1998, I took an early retirement offer, moved to Maine, and started writing (and dealing in antique prints!) full time. My first book to be published was an historical novel for young people, Stopping to Home. My editor at Simon & Schuster heard I'd also written a mystery, and she told a friend at Scribner, and my mysteries found a home there.
CWL: Where did the name the series (and of Maggie’s antique print business) come from?
LW: As it says in Shadows at the Fair, "[Maggie] named the business Shadows because that's what old prints were -- outlines of worlds to which the doors have closed; shadows of pasts that have vanished except for memories and remembrances."
CWL: You introduce each chapter with a description of an antique print. How does this tie into your stories?
LW: Each description is a clue ... if there is a print of a snake at the beginning of a chapter, watch out! The books also have themes which are reflected in the prints. For example, Shadows on the Coast of Maine features Winslow Homer wood engravings because of the Winslow Homer -- Maine connection, even though the engravings were done before Homer actually moved to Prout's Neck. And Shadows at the Spring Show is about a murder connected with an antique show benefiting an adoption agency, so most of the featured prints are by illustrators like Jessie Willcox Smith, who specialized in drawing or painting children.
CWL: Maggie Summer must to some extent be based on yourself. How are you and Maggie the same and how different?
LW: Maggie isn't really me -- she's young, and much braver! But she does have a "day job," as I did for many years. She's a widow; I was divorced very young. We both love Dry Sac Sherry. And one other major theme in the books ... Maggie is 38, and is feeling her biological clock ticking, so is considering adopting a child. I didn't wait until I was 38, but I adopted four children (ages 4-10) as a single parent when I was in my early 30s. And Maggie lives in Somerset County, New Jersey -- where I used to live. So -- we do have a lot in common. But I haven't solved even one murder, so there are a lot of differences, too! Maybe she's who I'd have liked to have been.
CWL: Are other characters in your stories based on real people?
LW: No; none of the other characters are based on specific people! In fact, I go out of my way to avoid doing that, although if you've ever been at an antique show or known many dealers, you've probably met some of the characters in my book! I do have a granddaughter who has Down Syndrome, and a recurring character in my book also has Downs. Maggie's best friend has post-polio syndrome, and I've known several people who've had that. So there are pieces of people I know in the books. But no one is there unchanged.
CWL: What is it like selling prints at antique shows?
LW: Despite the work it takes to set up antique shows, I do love doing them! I love talking with other dealers, and I love having the opportunity to educate customers, especially younger people, about antique prints. But there are some people .. one man at a major show last year spent perhaps half an hour looking through my Winslow Homer engravings. Finally he turned to me. "This guy could really draw," he said. "Did he do anything about World War II?" Some questions are best answered with a simple, "No."
CWL; What are your favorite print(s).
LW: I have a soft spot for Winslow Homer wood engravings; the ones printed in Harper's Weekly and Every Saturday and other newspapers from 1858-1874. I try to keep as many of them as I can in my inventory, although they're becoming harder to find. I have about 160 of them now. Although they've gone up in value in the past twenty years they are still affordable, and I think, as the early work of one of America's greatest artists, they will continue to be an excellent investment.
CWL Do you plan to continue with the Maggie Summer books?
LW: There are four books in the Shadows Antique Print Mystery Series and after the 4th book my editor retired, and Scribner discontinued most of the mystery series' she had contracted for, including mine. My agent has tried to find another publisher to pick up the series, but so far he hasn't been successful. So -- I've written another Maggie book, but I don't know if it will ever be published. I hope so! In the meantime, I'm continuing to sell antique prints.
I hope Lea finds a publisher and encourage fans of antique prints and mysteries to find one of the Shadows books and give it a read. You’ll enjoy it!