WHITMAN — The most common image that comes to mind with the phrase “missing persons detective thriller” involve Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer — hard-bitten tough guys who chain-smoke cigarettes and wear felt fedoras and their .38 in a shoulder holster.
A new novel with Whitman roots in its title, “Little Comfort,” introduces a different kind of detective hero. She is Hester Thursby, a Harvard librarian who stands all of four-feet nine inches tall — that’s fourfeet nine and three quarters inches tall — who takes care of her 3-year-old niece, her non-husband Morgan Maguire and a Bassett hound named Waffles. She works on missing persons cases in her spare time.
Hill is scheduled to talk about his book at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Whitman Public Library. He plans to read three excerpts from the book, centering on the three main characters and how they are introduced in the story.
“Hester is tough, she’s smart, she’s resourceful (unlike Rambo, she’s also articulate), but she definitely isn’t feisty,” author Edwin Hill says of his protagonist in his promotional materials. He said he is drawn to character, especially in movies, that are faced with challenging situations with only their own resolve to make it through.
“I like difference,” he said of Hester’s size. “I wanted something to make sure she never blended in.”
It was an Agatha Christie novel he read on a car trip as a kid that hooked him on mystery novels.
“From that moment on, I wanted to be a mystery writer and it only took me 35 years to figure out how to do it,” he said. A failed attempt at publishing a book in the early 2000s left him discouraged until he found the kernel of an idea in the Christian Gerhartsreiter — AKA Clark Rockefeller — a professional imposter who kidnapped his daughter and was later convicted of murder. There are also facets of the Charles Stuart case in “Little Comfort.” By 2012 he was back to writing with an agent by 2014 and selling it two years ago.
His debut novel, released Aug. 28, traces Thursby’s latest case, a handsome, ruthless grifter whose life goal to be accepted as part of the wealthy class who owned the summer lake houses he grew up cleaning. Sam Blaine uses a secret he shares with Gabe DiPuriso, based on an incident out of Gabe’s foster child past. A library is another source of his inspiration.
Hill’s grandmother, Phyllis Hill was the librarian in Whitman from the 1940s to the late ’60s.
“Librarians are really central to a community,” he said. “They really were then, too. She created all kinds of programs at the library that people would take part in and she really helped influence people’s futures.”
Mrs. Hill died in 1994 at the age of 99. Her grandson recalled how people came from all over to her funeral and talked about the influence she had on their lives and how she had always welcomed them.
His parents still live in Whitman, where his dad grew up.
While the book also takes the title from Whitman — once known as the Little Comfort section of Abington — but the story is set in Somerville where he grew up. Hill has a Google alert set up on his home computer for the phrase Little Comfort and has collected some unusual headlines.
“I just loved the name,” he said. “I always knew that my first book was going to be called ‘Little Comfort,’ because it’s such a perfect title for a mystery novel. Then I had to work it into the actual story.”
The saying goes that one should write what you know and, just as Robert Cormier set his novels, such as “The Chocolate War,” in Fitchburg and Leominster where he lived and edited the local newspaper, Hill leans on his grandmother’s career in the town of his family’s roots for inspiration.
“When I was drafting, I wrote a lot of scenes of [Thursby] at work, but I really wanted the character to be very isolated, it’s central to the plot that she feels very isolated,” Hill said. “I actually ended up putting her on leave.”
In this novel, the first book in a series, she doesn’t go into work to achieve that feeling of isolation. But the Widener Library and her job there will feature in the second and third books in the series. The fifth book in the series is going to be set on the South Shore.
He said readers should be aware this is a story that involves violence and sex.
“This is not a cozy mystery,” he said. “It deals with some uncomfortable situations.”
A hint can be found in Hill’s inclusion of Hester Thursby’s idea of relaxation — retreating to her own top floor apartment in the multifamily house she owns with Morgan to watch VHS tapes of her favorite movies. Her top 10 titles include “Alien,” “Jaws 2,” “Halloween” and “The Shining” as well as “The Little Mermaid.”
“She loves movies where women overcome extraordinary circumstances,” he said.
He also includes Crabbies — those crabmeat and cheese on an English muffin bites often served at family get-togethers — as part of a suggested menu for book club events. Macaroni and cheese also features as a food of choice for many characters in the book. Whitman groups may also appreciate his suggestion of chocolate chip waffle cookies, which are a tip of the hat to Hester’s beloved canine.
“Anything where you can get crowd sourcing is great,”he said of the recipes.
Does Hill see any of himself in his characters?
“When you write a book of fiction like this, I would say every character is you because they come out of you, and then no character is you at the same time,” he said.
A vice president and editorial director for Bedford/St. Martins, a tech book division of Macmillan, Hill worked on his book early in the morning before work, and in the evenings, at home. But his professional connections would not have helped with a mystery novel, and he was careful not to blur the lines between his profession and avocation in any case.
“It was a long process,” he said of getting published. “You have to be resolved, you have to have grit and you have to be prepared to work through hearing ‘no.’”
After the major hurdle of finishing a book, comes the work of finding an agent, a publisher and, finally, an audience for your book.
That’s where Hill finds himself now. He has hit the road to visit bookshops and libraries in Brookline, Belmont and Whitman as well as New York City and Austin, Texas. On the day he spoke with the Express, he had just done an interview about the book with a Florida-based podcast.