Popular with gay and lesbian tourists, Provincetown, the bustling summer resort on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, is known for its packed beaches and cute boutiques — not for its crime rate. But looking out at Herring Cove one early morning, alone except for the odd seagull pacing the beach, author Jon Loomis points out the place where the corpse of a cross-dresser was found.
"The first body, Reverend Ron, turns up back in those dunes there wearing a dress, and causes a bit of a stir," says Loomis. "It seemed like a good place to dump a body to me."
A poet and a college professor with an ear for comedy, Loomis is referring to one of the victims who turns up in his fictional detective novel Mating Season.
The book is the author's second mystery set in Provincetown and featuring detective Frank Coffin. In his first book, High Season, Loomis describes the grisly death of real estate developer Serena Hench. As Coffin, the son of a sea captain and Yankee born and bred, searches the victim's beautiful trophy house on the bluffs, he is well aware of the differences between Provincetown's newcomers and natives:
Inside, Coffin found himself thinking like a real estate ad: The cathedral-like spaces of the living area afford panoramic water views. In fact, the banks of floor-to-ceiling windows afforded an almost 360-degree view of the outer Cape: Long Point, the harbor, North Truro and Corn Hill. ... Coffin let himself out, climbed into the Dodge — which bucked and coughed before thundering to life — and backed down the long, steep driveway. Serena's house was less than a mile from Coffin's neighborhood, but she might as well have lived in a different universe. There was no panoramic view from Coffin's house, no Motherwell prints artfully arranged. His windows all looked out at other people's houses, shingled in gray cedar, packed in tight.
Provincetown has changed significantly since its inception as a fishing town; the fishing fleet that once sailed its harbor is long gone. Over on Commercial Street, there's only one townie bar left.
The town has dealt with the clash between newcomers and residents since the Pilgrims swiped corn from the Indians. Now Loomis writes about the undercurrent of tension that runs between the mostly gay summer people and the mostly straight year-rounders; between people who want the gray-shingled old ways preserved and the developers who want to build on every bit of beachfront.
In the books and in reality, the locals are totally dependent upon the summer visitors, who eat in the very good restaurants, shop in the very cute boutiques, buy biscuits at the dog bakery and jam the main street of town.
"The thing you have to think about in this town is that the off-season population is about 3,000 — high season it goes up to about 60,000 on a busy weekend," says Loomis. "It's unsettling in a way, and you want to tell them to go home, but to leave their wallets, because we need the money."
Despite this tension, it all works peacefully in real life: Standing on one beautiful beach, which he identifies as "the family beach," Loomis points: "Further down to our left is the lesbian beach, and way beyond that the gay man's beach. It's a funny little segregation but it seems to work for everyone."
But the novels are a different story; on the page, Loomis heaps up the bodies in this peaceful, playful beach town.
"There's a murder here maybe once every seven or eight years," says Loomis. "They don't happen very often, so when you have a book like my first one that's got four or five bodies in it in the space of a few days, people are like, 'That's kind of crazy.' But it's fiction."
Loomis says Provincetown works for his novels because the town is so crazy in the summer that it's impossible to create a character who is over the top. He notes, as an example, Miss Ellie, a local man with long blond hair and a miniskirt singing show tunes with a karaoke box in front of Town Hall.
As we walk down Commercial Street, tourist Bob Walsh, who overheard our conversation about Miss Ellie, stops us: "I heard you chatting at breakfast this morning about Miss Ellie," he says. "Miss Ellie's had the operation, so she wouldn't want to hear you say it's a fellow."
Loomis says he has a couple more Provincetown thrillers featuring Frank Coffin in the works. They use real events as a starting point, including a fire at the Crown & Anchor, the nightclub that hosts the town's famous drag queen show. The nightclub, which actually burned to the ground a few years ago, has remained a powerful image in Loomis' mind.
"Everyone worried that the entire town was going to go up because these great pieces of burning debris were sort of floating through the air," says Loomis. "We all stood on the beach and watched it burn down, and the drag queens wept because all their beautiful outfits burned up."