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.
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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.
At the suggestion of a reader (Thanks, Tim!), I prepared a clean version of the map I worked from while writing the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries so far. The original is sketchy, full of erasures and x-outs. This one, I hope, will help you picture the place described in the novels.
The chapel is the oldest building on campus, dating from before the Civil War. It served the Eden Commune and contains the mural Nicole studies in Dark Mural.
The Victorians on College Avenue were built in the late 1800s, when the descendents of the founders, having left communal life, turned the commune into the campus of the Eden Independent School. These were kit houses ordered from Sears and Roebuck.
The Old Classroom Building and the Library date from the 1920s when the school became a four-year liberal arts college. They were built in the collegiate gothic style.
Science Hall, a federal style building, was built in the 1950s. The Student Center, an example of early shopping mall, was added in the 1960s. The Arts and Humanities building, added in the 1970s is a fine example of modernist architecture.
The duplexes on Ohio Avenue were added starting in the 1950s. The Rabbit Hutches on Montgomery Avenue, where Nicole lives, are more recent.
The generic names of the buildings indicate the college has not yet sold naming rights to raise funds. Like many small schools with a long history, Fuchs College has survived on donations from alumni and the occasional grant.
Of course, this is all fictional, but I think it is a plausible history for a rural, liberal arts college.
I happened to walk by this Italianate mansion on my last day in Columbus. With its limestone exterior, it stands out among the red-brick Victorians of Goodale Park. The banners told me it is home to the Pizzuti Collection of art. Alas, I had no time to visit.
Since then I've read read about the Pizzuti Collection and learned it focuses on contemporary art from around the world. Ron and Ann Pizzuti restored this building and have used it to make their art collection available to the community.
Buying masterpieces from dealers and bidding up their prices at auctions, is fine, but buying art from people who are still alive and making it has a special place in my heart. Thank you, Ron and Ann.
If I'd had time to visit, Nicole would probably have done so in Dark Mural or Dark Exhibit. Instead, the Pizzuti Collection remains a possibility for her further adventures.
In Chapter 8 of Dark Mural, Nicole Tang Noonan recalls how she got her start as an art historian.
"When Mom took me to the de Young Museum, about ten blocks from our house, I didn’t want to leave. I started crying when she said it was time to go home. When we got home I used my crayons to make copies from memory of paintings I had seen at the museum so I wouldn’t forget them. When I was older, I took art lessons and started studying art, but the real lesson from my childhood was that copying and thinking about a picture could make me feel better."
Today the de Young occupies an ultra-modern building that opened in 2005. Were she a real person, Nicole would have been a teenager at the time.
But during Nicole's childhood, the de Young occupied a building created for a world's fair in 1894, converted into a permanent art museum in 1895, and expanded and repaired several times throughout the twentieth century. It is described as having "a pseudo–Egyptian Revival style."
Since the new building is on the same site as the original at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park, Nicole could easily have walked to both from her family's home in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.
Goodale Park is the other side of the Short North in Columbus, Ohio. By contrast to the smaller houses east of High Street, it is a neighborhood of grand Victorians.
Here is where one might expect to find houses converted to bed-and-breakfast inns, but that is not the case. The b&b where I stayed is on the east side, in a modest house probably originally built for the family of a factory work.
West of High Street, these larger houses appear still to be single-family homes. Walking around the neighborhood, I saw no signs of division into apartments or condos.
The largest of them is large indeed:
I haven't yet come up with a reason for Nicole to explore this side of The Short North, but I think she will in some future book in the Nicole Tang Noonan series.
In Dark Mural Nicole says, "My office on the third floor of Arts Humanities had a window overlooking the downward slope of a wooded hillside. Sitting at my desk, I saw some pale yellow spots among the wave of green treetops, my first glimpse of autumn color."
This photo gives an example of the kind of scene she describes. The people seen as tiny figures on the sidewalk suggest the grand scale of such vistas on a campus in the Appalachian foothills.
Since this was taken in springtime, as shown by sparse foliage on the trees, it gives a better impression of what Nicole would see from her window in Dark Picasso, the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, which takes place in April. Dark Picasso will be published in January, 2019.
In fact, I took this picture on the campus of Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio (not to be confused with Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio), near the border with West Virginia. The fictional location of the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries is somewhere between Chillicothe and Athens, so the landscape would be similar.
I previously wrote about Schlegel's Coffee in Chillicothe, Ohio, as a source for a coffee-house scene in Dark Exhibit, the second Nicole Tang Noonan mystery. I like it's historic vibe and the friendly reception I got from the proprietress.
But this place provided one detail of the place Nicole visits to meet a mysterious person: "The cafe occupied a corner storefront, which gave it abundant daylight from windows on two sides."
As you can see this coffee house has windows both on the street and around the corner on the alley. The extra exposure to passers-by made Nicole and her companion more vulnerable, which helped the nervous feeling of the scene.
The sign hanging in front of this place says, "Paper City Coffee," a reference to the paper mill that has long been Chillicothe's economic life-blood. Because of the good jobs it provides most of the neighborhoods in town are looking all spruced up, as folks around here might say.
At a critical point in Dark Exhibit, the second Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, Nicole agrees to meet a mysterious figure at a coffee shop called Klein's in Chillicothe, which is a half-hour drive from her campus in southeastern Ohio.
As she describes it:
"On Thursday afternoon I found Klein's in a block of three-story, red-brick buildings that looked like they'd been around since the 1880s. The cafe occupied a corner storefront, which gave it abundant daylight from windows on two sides. I guessed it could seat fifty people, though there were less than a dozen customers on that afternoon. The space to walk between the tables and the groupings of couches and easy chairs was a luxury unknown back home in San Francisco where space is always at a premium."
I counted three coffee houses in Chillicothe, and I may have missed one or two. This description doesn't exactly match any of them. I assembled the parts that were most useful for the scene I wanted to write.
The coffee shop where I had breakfast was Schlegel's (see below). I asked the proprietress about the impressive storefront with the name in glass over the doorway. She said the place was originally a jewelry store that operated for many years in the town. When she leased the space, the obvious choice was to keep the historic storefront and call her new shop Schlegel's coffee.
Those of you who have read about half-way through Dark Exhibit (and I know some of you have) know Nicole takes a weekend break by checking into a bed-and-breakfast in the Short North, a neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio.
I stayed in such a place when I visited Columbus for research on the series. Though none of the houses pictured above is the one I stayed in, it was a house very much like these on a street like this.
Front porches seem to have gone out of style, and that's a shame. Somewhere I read an architect's idea that porches facing the street create community. For one thing, they put lots of eyes on the street, so people behave themselves. Also, neighbors sitting out on their porches are available for passing conversations and casual visits.
Sadly, they don't build them like this any more.
In Dark Mural, Nicole and Lionel visit the Columbus Museum of Art. Here's how she describes her visit:
"Lunch at the museum cafe overlooking the sculpture garden was like breathing pure oxygen. After lunch, we walked through the permanent collection, and I made mental notes to return. I liked the way they hung the work of local artists alongside that of recognized masters to invite comparison. The collection was especially rich in the works of George Bellows, who is both a native of Columbus and widely recognized."
My visit to this museum was similar. It's not as grand as the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Cincinnati Art Museum, but they do smart, innovative things. I enjoyed seeing paintings by widely recognized masters such as Edward Hopper hung alongside similar paintings by local and regional artists such as Emerson C. Burkhart.
Readers of the first two Nicole Tang Noonan Mysteries will notice she visits a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, called The Short North. She goes there to take a break from the rural campus where she lives and teaches. Unlike her campus, it's a real place.
Along High Street, she finds art galleries and restaurants, just as I did when I visited there. Brew pubs are also well-represented, which is trendy but also traditional for this heavily German part of Ohio. There is another neighborhood on the south side called Brewerytown.
These three-story brick buildings are about 100 years old, with retail space on the street level and two floors of apartments above. Very civilized. The adjacent neighborhood is built almost entirely of red brick, but on this commercial street the builders went for orange and tan and made bold patterns.
I was fortunate to visit on a mild spring evening, and enjoy my dinner al fresco (see below).