Dark Portrait, the fourth mystery featuring Nicole Tang Noonan, is available for pre-order on Amazon pending release on October 31. Here's how it begins:
Out on the trails in the Presidio, a long walk will usually soothe my soul, but it didn’t on that Thursday morning. The winding paths, the smells of the forest, the relief from city noise—all the delights that come with a visit to San Francisco’s national park were not enough to stop my mind from working overtime.
I’d been walking in this section of the park a lot as fire season turned to rainy season in northern California, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. I had enjoyed my research leave up to that point, but each passing day brought me closer to returning to the campus in Ohio where I’d taught for four years. When that time came, I would have some hard decisions to make.
As I rounded a bend, I saw someone lying along a path connected to the trail. He wore a floppy canvas hat, a hiking vest over a denim shirt, loose gray pants, and hiking boots. His backpack and walking stick lay next to him. Since this was an unlikely place to lie down and rest, I wondered if he was injured. “Hello?” I called. “Are you alright?”
I heard footsteps on gravel about forty yards away, down a hill and across an opening in the forest. I looked that way just in time to see a man disappear into some trees. He was going in the direction I had come from.
After walking a few steps down the path, I leaned to one side and looked at the man on the ground. His eyes were open, but they weren’t focused on anything. His skin was gray.
I skipped backward a half-dozen steps without taking my eyes off him. I don’t know why I did that. He certainly wasn’t going to do anything to me. Maybe I was trying to rewind to the moment before I had seen him. Maybe I wanted to go back to the trail I had left, continue on my walk, and enjoy a day that did not include finding a dead body.
Pre-order the ebook or buy the paperback now!
The original Petit Trianon was built in the 1760s by Louis XV of France for his chief Mistress, Madame de Pompadour, though she did not live to see its completion. Upon ascending to the throne, Louis XVI gave it to his chief mistress, Marie Antoinette.
This copy of the Petit Trianon stands in the Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. It was built from 1902 to 1904 by a husband and wife who came from merchant families. At their housewarming they dressed as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
One wonders why they chose to identify with the king and mistress who presided over the collapse of the monarchy and were beheaded, rather than with the king who built the original Petit Trianon and his mistress.
In the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, now being written, some of the action centers around this house and its fictional occupants.
A lot of people in San Francisco and Oakland see the clock tower of the Ferry Building more often than the Golden Gate Bridge. After all, this is where you get on the ferry to cross the Bay.
The building itself (behind the palm trees) was completed in 1898 and survived the earthquake and fire of 1906, and the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. It has had a checkered history, but since a renovation in 2002 has been a great hall of restaurants and vendors of locally produced foods.
Justin Herman Plaza, seen here in front of it, is controversial both for its modernist fountain and because Herman presided over redevelopment in the 1960s that displaced many residents in poor neighborhoods.
About halfway through the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, Nicole and Pat walk through the plaza and turn north from the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero to watch the light show installed on the western span of the Bay Bridge, glimpsed just to the right of the clock tower. Then they come back to the Ferry Building to have dinner overlooking the Bay.
On my way to lunch with a friend, I passed this bit of street art. The drawers reassembled as planters on the city's utility poles were the first in my experience. I hope they survive, though I have a feeling they won't pass inspection.
The painted bench is delightful, and neighborly. There are two more alongside this house, which stands on a corner.
Sidewalk planter boxes are seen occasionally, but nowhere so extensive as at this address. The attached seat backs are especially charming, and I love the yellow swing hanging from the tree limb:
The Inner Sunset is one of the few neighborhoods in San Francisco to remain this easy-going. I know that goes against the city's "groovy" reputation, but in the golden age of tech, so many places have gone upscale. Perhaps that's why I decided Nicole Tang Noonan's home is in this neighborhood.
San Francisco's city hall was built following the earthquake and fire of 1906, which destroyed three-quarters of the city, including the old city hall. Legend has it the mayor at that time, James "Sunny Jim" Rolf, insisted the top of the dome be higher than that of the US Capitol, thus ensuring bragging rights.
Citizens come and go on routine errands: getting a marriage license, attending meetings of the Board of Supervisors, visiting the offices of the Planning Commission and many other government offices. All this is done in an interior as magnificent as the exterior.
City Hall is the grandest of the grand buildings that surround Civic Center Plaza, including state and federal court houses, the Asian Art Museum, Main Library, and the Civic Auditorium built for a world's fair in 1915 and renamed for Bill Graham in 1992.
I recently wrote a scene for the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery in which Nicole and her friend, Irene, are strolling through Civic Center Plaza, admiring the magnificent buildings, and observing the pitiful life of the people on the streets. Irene asks, "Why did the French Revolution happen?" Nicole says, "The rich got too rich, and the poor got too poor."
San Francisco's Asian Art Museum has occupied the former main library since 2003. It's vast collection has been built upon donations from Avery Brundage and Chong-Moon Lee among others. Even a cursory viewing of the 18,000 objects in the collection will convince you that, as the website says, "Asia is not one place."
Currently on display outside the front door of the museum is a sculpture by Yoshitomo Nara, entitled Your Dog. According to the museum, Nara's "blending of cute, creepy, and vulnerable" has earned him a cult following and comparisons to Jeff Koons and Keith Haring.
Early in the fourth Nicole Tang Noon mystery, Nicole pops into the Asian on her way to the Main Library. Both stand along the eastern edge of San Francisco's Civic Center. You'll have to read the book when it comes out this summer to find out why she goes there (beyond the obvious, to see great art).
San Francisco's Opera Plaza is two blocks from the opera house and is near other civic amenities. The ground floor surrounding this fountain contains a deli, a cinema, some professional offices, a florist, and a Peet's coffee shop. The second floor also houses offices. Above that are several floors of condominium apartments.
For the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, I recently wrote a scene in which Nicole and Irene meet at the Peet's coffee house to compare notes on their joint investigation. The cafe is crowded, and they are concerned about sensitive information being over heard, so they move out to a bench near this fountain.
Since the action of this novel is set in November, the weather is chilly, they have to make it quick. There probably would not be flowers blooming in the planters.
San Francisco's new Main Library opened in 1996. It is built around this atrium, which fills all six floors of the library with natural daylight.
This new building was necessitated by damage to the old Main Library in the earthquake of 1989. After it opened, the older building was retrofitted for safety and has reopened as the Asian Art Museum. The two now stand side by side on the south side of Civic Center Plaza.
As the plot thickens in Dark Video, I have Nicole Tang Noonan, art historian and amateur sleuth, stop here for some research and then meet an informant in the library's cafe, which is tucked away in the basement.
While she's in the neighborhood, Nicole also stops in at the museum. I'm about one-third of the way through the first draft.
This is a privately owned public open space (POPOS) at the corner of Second Street and Mission Street in San Francisco. It occupies most of the ground floor of a twenty-six-story office tower and is open during business hours for anyone to use.
POPOSs have been required by law since 1985 in all new buildings downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods. Along with requiring public open space proportional to the floor space of the building, the law requires a budget for public art equal to one percent of the total construction cost.
Just this morning, I wrote a scene set in the Greenhouse for Dark Video, the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, Nicole meets her friend, Irene Gonzalo, for lunch so they can compare notes on their investigations. Irene is Nicole's sidekick in this book, much the way Abbie is in the first three books.
If you're ever in town, it's fun to walk around to these. Some are indoors, some are outdoors. Some are street-level, some are rooftop. Here's a partial list.
The Bay Area Ridge Trail winds through the southern part of the Presidio, a national park within the boundaries of San Francisco. This part is referred to as the Southern Wilds because it is forested, while other parts of the park are landscaped for other uses.
This walk in the Presidio is a small part of the overall Bay Area Ridge Trail. When completed it will allow adventurous hikers to circle the Bay Area using over 400 miles of trails, mostly on ridges that afford a view.
The fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, tentatively entitled Dark Video, opens with a scene on the section of the trail pictured here. Nicole follows a section of the trail for pedestrians only into a densely wooded section where something unpleasant happens.
I am currently writing Dark Video and hope to publish it this summer.
Readers of the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries know that at the end of the third book, Dark Picasso, Nicole decides to apply for a research leave that would release her from teaching for one semester and allow her to conduct research.
I have now written several chapters of the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery. Nicole was granted research leave for fall semester and has returned to her home in San Francisco so she can work at the Oakland Museum of California, just across the Bay.
Early in the book, Nicole meets her life-long friend, Irene Gonzalo, for coffee at this intersection. Ninth Avenue and Irving Street is in the Inner Sunset District of San Francisco, just a few blocks from her parents' home.
Enjoyable as it has been to imagine Nicole's campus and surroundings in southeastern Ohio, I'm getting a whole new kick out of setting scenes around the city where I live. As Elmore Leonard once said, "I write about Detroit because I live in Detroit. If I lived in Buffalo, I'd write about Buffalo."
Until the twentieth century, the western half of San Francisco remained sand dunes. Then it was covered with attached houses and apartment buildings. It is divided into two districts: the Richmond, north of Golden Gate Park; and the Sunset, south of the park.
Since these districts cover such a vast area, San Franciscans refer to the side closer to the center of the city as the Inner Richmond and the Inner Sunset, and to the side closer to the ocean as the Outer Richmond and the Outer Sunset.
Because both districts were built up at the same time, they look very similar. Most people, looking at a picture like this, couldn't tell you whether it is in the Richmond or the Sunset. This street happens to be in the Inner Sunset district.
Readers of the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries know this is where Nicole grew up. If she were a real person, her family would live on a street like this, though I imagine they live in a house that has just one floor of living space above the street level rather than two, as these do.
Nicole talks about walking from home to visit the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. It is an easy walk from houses like these on the blocks along the south side of the park.
Dark Picasso, the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, is now available on Amazon. I think it’s fun to go to my author page and see the three books (so far) in the series lined up together: Dark Mural, Dark Exhibit, and Dark Picasso.
In Dark Picasso, Nicole winds up her third academic year on the fictional campus in southeastern Ohio where she teaches. The college has a new name and Nicole has a new boyfriend.
Her new adventure takes her into the world of top-tier donors on which private colleges depend. This is fun for Nicole, since people with big houses tend to have big art collections, but not so much fun when someone gets killed.
As usual, solving the mystery involves interpreting the art, and Nicole does her best to tell law enforcement what the art says. In this adventure, the work of art is by . . . Spoiler alert! . . . Picasso!
Along the way, her duties as a professor of art history and director of the college’s gallery are complicated by the squabbles of her colleagues. She is three years into her career and still amazed that professors are long on expertise and short on common sense.
If you are enjoying the series, please tell your friends, and please consider leaving a rating and review on Amazon. Your review can be a single sentence. In the world’s largest bookstore, what matters most is how many people respond.
I've already posted a map of Fuchs College and a map of Blanton, Ohio. These are fictional places where most of the action in the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries takes place. This map shows the spatial relation of the college and the town.
I imagined a rural campus located about ten minutes by car from the nearest town. The dotted line indicates a footpath across an open field. Students use it as a shortcut for walking into town. This is central to the plot of Dark Mural, the first book in the series.
The road shown in the upper-left corner crosses a creek and leads to Chillicothe, the only real place indicated on these maps. This fictional road would take the driver to the real route 35.
This area of Ohio is in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, very pretty country with winding roads through wooded hillsides. The land further south flattens out. It would have been farmed by the first Europeans to arrive here, who were English.
The German settlers who came later would have made do with the steeper land. In my imaginary history, they formed a commune, as was frequently done in the mid-1800s. By the late 1800s, their descendents left communal life, sold some of the land, and devoted the rest to establishing the Eden Independent School, which later became Fuchs college.
Blanton is a fictional town near the fictional campus of Fuchs College, which is the setting for the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries.
The only reference to reality on this map is the note, "To Chillicothe," on the upper left. Thus, the town and campus are in the southeastern corner of Ohio.
Based on the history of the area as told in the first book of the series, Dark Mural, this part of Ohio was settled by immigrants from England in the early 1800s. They gave the creek an English name, Ware.
Although there really is a Ware Creek in Virginia, this fictional creek is in no way connected with it. Names of places were repeated all over the continental United States, the most famous example being "Springfield." There's one in every state.
As is typical of such towns, settlement began along the creek and spread outward. Buildings were erected wherever was convenient and paths worn between them. Later these paths were paved to make streets. As a result the town is not laid out on a strict grid pattern.
I have marked only places mentioned in the books so far. As you can see, there is a lot of unclaimed real estate in Blanton, but more books are on the way.