Just guess what the source of inspiration was for setting of Wendy Webb’s new mystery novel. A couple of clues: It’s a mansion in Duluth, set on the shores of Lake Superior, possibly inhabited by a ghost.
Webb, who is also the editor in chief of Duluth Superior Magazine, had never visited Glensheen Mansion, but decided to take two visiting relatives there a few years ago after her son’s graduation party.
“We took the tour and walked out onto the patio, which overlooks this beautiful lawn which runs right into Lake Superior, and I just thought, what a great place to have a party! I started imagining women in long dresses and men in tuxedos and waiters and waitresses swirling around with drinks, and then I thought, what if someone ended up dead at this party? And that’s where the story began.”
In “The Fate of Mercy Alban,” Webb explores the family secrets hidden in Alban mansion, a historic estate that has just passed into the reluctant hands of the last surviving Albans, Grace, and her teenage daughter. A long line of Albans has lived and died, often mysteriously, at the stately home. Grace has to sort out the truth surrounding a long-ago party, a missing relative, and a legend that says the very wood inside the home is cursed. The book, Webb’s second (a third is in the works, and also features a fantastic old house), is rich with regional detail, even as it explores spooky dimensions beyond the map. But of course, Duluth is rife with ghost stories.
“I think it’s the lake. It’s very mystical to a lot of the people who live up here. There’s just something about it. A few years ago a guy was trying to swim across all the Great Lakes, and he was having trouble with Superior. He was on the news, saying, ‘I don’t know why, Superior’s not that superior.’ He was trash-talking the lake! And someone I was talking to said, “Well. He’s never going to swim across it now.’ You have to respect the lake. The lake has such a presence, and power.”
Not to mention a high body count over the years. Webb says she has encountered ghosts in her home and neighborhood, which is filled with storied old Duluth homes. Her readers often come up to her after reading events to tell their own ghost stories, sometimes with tears in their eyes. This gives her readings an air of the otherworldly and unpredictable, which suits Webb just fine. Ghosts interest her rather than frighten her, and that open-to-possibility attitude is part of her writing process, too. Webb says her books reveal themselves as she writes them — unusual, in the step-by-step world of mystery writing.
“I was talking to [northern Minnesota mystery writer] William Kent Krueger about the writing process, and he said he always creates a detailed outline, and that frees him to focus on the writing. But if I know where the story is going to end, I am sort of bored by it. I like to be surprised, along with my readers,” she said. Instead, she starts with a place and a few ideas. “I just start writing, and about halfway through it starts to jell and I discover where it’s going. It’s one of my favorite things, when it happens. It feels just like magic.”
If you believe in such things.
- Reading with Erin Hart, tonight (March 6), 7 p.m. Common Good Books, St. Paul
- March 7, 7:30 p.m. Magers & Quinn, Minneapolis
- April 4-7. Books in the Woods event at Gunflint Lodge, with author Larry Watson, near Grand Marais, Minn.
- April 11, 6:30 p.m. The Bookstore at Fitger’s, Duluth
- April 27, 11:15-12:30 p.m. Mystery, Crime and Thriller Conference, Open Book: Loft Literary Center Minneapolis