Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Road Trip for Readers by Neil Plakcy

Neil Plakcy’s golden retriever mysteries were inspired by his own golden, Samwise, who was just as sweet as Rochester, though not quite as smart. And fortunately he didn’t have Rochester’s talent for finding dead bodies. Now that Sam has gone on to his big, comfy bed in heaven, his place by Neil’s side has been taken by Brody, a cream-colored golden puppy with a penchant for mischief.


A native of Bucks County, PA, where IN DOG WE TRUST, THE KINGDOM OF DOG and DOG HELPS THOSE are set, Neil is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and Florida International University, where he received his MFA in creative writing. He has written and edited many other books; details can be found at his website,


Neil, his partner, and Brody live in South Florida, where Neil is working on a fourth mystery, and Brody is busily chewing something.

A Road Trip for Readers
by Neil Plakcy
Let me take you on a little trip, to the river towns of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I grew up in Yardley, right smack dab in the middle of this string of charming towns. I write about a place much like it in my golden retriever mysteries.
Bucks County snuggles against the curves of the Delaware River, forming the boundary between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Within easy commuting distance of New York and Philadelphia, it’s home to a growing and increasingly transient population. As its farmlands gradually give way to suburban developments, some of those old connections are lost. I try to recreate a bit of that lost world in my books—my hero runs into classmates at the local coffee shop, and helps his childhood piano teacher out of a jam.
Writing about Bucks County has reminded me that my high school typing teacher, Mrs. Scammell, still lived at Scammell’s Corner, where generations of her family had farmed. The names of my classmates’ parents were on everything from garbage trucks to antique stores. Today, they have been replaced by chain stores and restaurants, but these the towns along the Delaware’s banks still retain their charm.
Yardley is a small town of Victorian gingerbread and native brown stone. There is only one traffic light in town, at the corner of Main and Afton. To the east is the Delaware River, and the ruins of the bridge to New Jersey that was destroyed in 1960 by Hurricane Donna. To the west is the old mill pond, now Lake Afton, where swans paddle beside the Victorian library, built by local residents in 1878. The mystery section was located beside one of those high, gothic-arched windows, and I used to look out at the water between browsing for the classic mystery authors  who cultivated my taste for crime fiction-- Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie.
Today the library has moved to a modern facility in the country, but children and adults still use its steps to change into their skates for a quick turn on the ice in the winter, creating a tableau straight out of Norman Rockwell.
 Though the Hyatt Pharmacy at the corner is now a Starbucks, Yardley retains a small-town charm. I’ve even converted the Continental Tavern, which has been serving thirsty travelers at this intersection since 1863, into my own bar, called the Drunken Hessian. This is, after all, the stretch of river where Washington crossed the Delaware en route to his attack on the Hessian outpost at Trenton.
My fictional Stewart’s Crossing is just north of Yardley, on a stretch of beautiful riverfront that in real life contains only farmland. River Road, which my hero, paroled computer hacker Steve Levitan, travels a lot, is overhung with oaks, maples and elms and is lined with purple and white phlox on long stems and the tiny pansies called Johnny jump-ups.
As the rest of the river towns do, Stewart’s Crossing straddles the Delaware Canal, and I’ve used the canal and its towpath in my books, starting with In Dog We Trust. Steve walks his inherited golden retriever, Rochester, there. Despite the town nearby, the towpath is wild and quiet, lined with wild apple blossoms in the spring, climbing vines and yellow daisies and buttercups. Rochester loves to chase the mallards, Canada geese, other small birds, and maybe a rabbit or two.
Before railroads, canals played an important role in American commerce and transportation. They carried anthracite coal from the mines of Lehigh County to New York City and Philadelphia. Two hundred years later, the only traffic on the Delaware Canal comes from mule-drawn sightseeing barges run from New Hope, where an artists’ colony grew in the early twentieth century. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, New Hope was filled with hippies, head shops and antique stores, and it still retains a unique character today.
The land is low along the river and the verge is very narrow in many places from Yardley north to New Hope. I placed a car accident there in In Dog We Trust, though I’d probably never walk my own dog there, as the river is so close you can almost reach out and touch it.
In The Kingdom of Dog, Steve takes Rochester up to Bowman's Hill Tower, just inland from the river. It was built of local stone in 1930 and now stands over a nice park with barbecues and picnic pavilions named for Revolutionary War heroes. The picnic grounds are green and rolling, and the slope is just right for little kids to roll down. We often went there for school picnics in the spring. The tower is open from April to November, and is the centerpiece of a 100-acre wildflower preserve.
I’ve driven up the curving road many times, as well as hiking the trail up to the tower through woods that seem untouched since Washington's day. Once you've reached the summit, take the elevator up inside the tower and climb the last 21 steps, through a narrow, curving passageway more reminiscent of medieval Europe than depression-era Pennsylvania, to the observation platform, 110 feet up.
On a clear day, you can see 60 miles in any direction, and you'll understand why Washington sent his scouts to the top of this hill to watch for redcoats. The vista is of farms and fields, but increasingly you'll see renovated half-million-dollar farmhouses and fake-colonial suburbs. Look closely and you’ll see the area where I placed Steve’s alma mater, Eastern College.
I created the small college town of Leighville somewhere outside Upper Black Eddy, just a bit farther up the river from New Hope. Eastern dominates the hill overlooking the river, and provides another environment where Steve and Rochester can sniff out criminal intent. The third book in the series, Dog Helps Those, combines a college mystery with a murder in the world of dog agility training, and gave me a chance to return to the farmlands outside town where my parents used to take me to pick apples and strawberries, and to choose our Halloween pumpkins.
I try to incorporate the landscape of this area where I grew up, as well as years of loving dogs, in creating the world where my characters live. I may not live in Pennsylvania any more, but I love revisiting these river towns in my imagination, even though dastardly deeds occur there!
More information on my golden retriever mysteries, as well as my other mystery and romance novels and stories, can be found at my website,


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Neil, Hi! I could have sworn I had already left a comment!

Welcome back to Meanderings and Muses - it's always a pleasure having you here, my friend!

Neil Plakcy said...

Thanks for having me, Kaye. And this blog turned out to be very timely as Hurricane Sandy bears down on Bucks County! I hope everyone there stays safe.