Attraction: James River Plantations Location: Richmond, Virginia
Photos: Unless otherwise credited in caption, all photos by Dean Hoffmeyer of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, except these first two shots provided by Shirley Plantation (built 1723), seen right and below.
In real life, when an agent accidently drives over a cliff into the ocean, there is no Q who happened to conveniently provide the agent beforehand with a car that converts into a submarine. Real agents don’t always have snappy comebacks and an absolute confidence that would border on arrogance if the results didn’t always back up their egos.
Real agents have to improvise. FBI agent Raleigh Harmon is no exception. She is the main character in the third installment of the popular mystery series by Sibella Giorello.
The novel is set in the modern Richmond area, a city Sibella knows well from her days there as a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (where her reporting earned two Pulitzer nominations, among other awards). Much of the novel takes place in the nearby James River plantations.
Many of these charming estates still operate as beautiful bed-and-breakfast getaways and museums that allow literary tourists to step back in time to an era when art permeated almost every aspect of life, from architecture to furnishings to gardens. Shirley Plantation (seen above) served as a specific inspiration for Sibella when creating her fictional James River estates for the novel. Other shots come from estates close by. An excellent guide to the James River plantation area and all the attractions of Richmond can be found at the end of this article in the Tourism Guide.
In the following excerpt from The Clouds Roll Away, Raleigh has to piece together the scattered clues of a case that might has well have exploded like a bomb. A mega-star rap producer has moved into the normally genteel and civilized culture of modern Richmond, Virginia, and the neighbors have hardly thrown out the welcome mat. A burning cross is only the opening shot in a deadly contest that continues to escalate with violence and retribution. But things are not always what they seem . . .
FROM THE CLOUDS ROLL AWAY:
Winter rode into Richmond on the chattering breath of the Atlantic. Each year the season blew itself into existence. The ancient elms crystallized and frost crocheted the birches into lace dollies. On this particular December morning, with a bright sun overhead, I drove out New Market Road past fields that glistened like crushed diamonds.
For this moment, my hometown looked cryogenically frozen, preserved for future generations to discover Richmond’s wide river, verdant soils, and the plantation lifestyle forged through generations—gone tragically, humanly awry.
But the reverie was shattered by two elephants. Carved from white granite, they stood on either side of a black asphalt driveway with a steel sign naming the property: Rapland.
The scene of the crime.
I turned down the asphalt driveway. It was a long drive, rolling over fenced fields where satiny horses were grazing, their breath quick clouds that evaporated in the sun. At the other end, an old plantation house faced the James River. The historic clapboards were painted polo white, the copper cupola green from exposure . . .
I headed west from Rapland and just before Battlefield Park, turned down an oyster-shell drive. The fractured calciferous layers glowed like broken pearls and led to a plantation dating back to a 1662 land grant from King Charles II. The plantation prospered until its slaves were freed, until carpetbaggers and federal soldiers carried away everything that wasn’t nailed down. When the Depression hit, snakes slithered through the rotting pine floors and the French wallpaper hung like discarded bandages from the walls.
It took a Yankee to save the place. James Flynn drove south from New Jersey in 1948, bearing a self-made fortune in the commodities of necessity—sugar, corn, bootleg—and the curse of so many Irishmen, falling for underdogs. Flynn spent years restoring the grand house and eventually Bell Grove returned to the small coterie of historic plantations along the James River.
His granddaughter ran the place these days, and when I walked around to the back of the main house, Flynn Wellington was in the glass conservatory, scooping soil into gilded pots. The air was moist and tasted of trapped chlorophyll. To either side, wooden pallets displayed poinsettias with burgundy leaves lush as crushed velvet.
“Why, Raleigh, how nice to see you.” Flynn lifted both hands, her cotton gloves smothered with black soil. “I’d give you a hug but you’d be picking dirt off your clothes the rest of the day.”
Flynn and I had been classmates at St. Catherine’s School and were acquainted through her mother’s penultimate husband. There were five husbands in all. Number four was an attorney my father liked—there weren’t many—and on sweltering August afternoons, we would drive out to Bell Grove so the adults could sit on the wraparound porch drinking iced beverages while Flynn and I swam in the river.
“I heard y’all moved to Oregon,” she said.
“Washington. It was only temporary.”
“I can’t imagine leaving Virginia.” She picked up the spade, folding the soil again. Her blonde hair bounced with the motion. “How is your mother?”
She pronounced it the Old Dominion way, muh-thah.
“Fine, thanks. Yours?”
“She moved to Florida with what’s-his-name. What can I do for you, Raleigh?”
“Last night somebody burned a cross at Rapland.”
“Please. ‘Rapland’ sounds like a theme park. You know very well the name of the plantation is Laurel.”
Yes, I knew. I knew all kinds of things. By junior high I could recite long passages of internecine gossip about families who traced their heritage to the House of Burgesses, but I only had one foot in that world. David Harmon married my mother when I was five years old. To this day, I couldn’t trace my paternal heritage back one generation to my birth father. Not that I needed to: David Harmon was every girl’s dream dad.
“The gentleman who owns Rapland thinks you’re trying to run him off his property. Is that true?”
“Are you implying something?”
“I’m not implying, Flynn. I’m asking flat out.”
“He’s ruining the place,” she said. “I don’t want him there. I’ve never said otherwise. I’ve been saying it since he moved in four years ago.”
The fine bones in her neck looked as brittle as glass rods. The pretty girl I once knew was lost to hard work. Several years ago, to keep up with expenses, Flynn and her husband had turned Belle Grove into a bed-and-breakfast.
“Flynn, there were people in the house. Children. The flames were burning ten feet from the door.”
She dropped the gardening tool, wiping the back of her wrists across her forehead. “It’s been awhile since you’ve been out this way, Raleigh, so let me explain it to you. My guests pay good money to stay here. They want a romantic retreat. They expect a visit with the historic past. We were doing fine until that rapper took over Laurel. Ever since, it’s been rap music blaring down-river, party boats up and down the water. How do you think that’s affected my business? Is this something I can call the FBI about?”
“That place could have burned down.”
“Good,” she repeated. “Then maybe he’ll leave and somebody could rebuild Laurel. Somebody who will treat that beautiful property with the dignity it deserves.”
I leveled my gaze. “Flynn, I want you to answer truthfully. Did you have anything to do with burning that cross?”
--Excerpted from THE CLOUDS ROLL AWAY, Copyright © 2010 by Sibella Giorello. All rights reserved.
Great mysteries always allow the reader to participate in solving the case. In The Clouds Roll Away, I kept discovering pieces of evidence that just didn’t add up—to me or Raleigh. Mystery writers often fall prey to easy clichés of the genre, but this case continued to be an intriguing challenge.
Another strategy of mystery writers is to simply hide the relevant facts until the very end, making the case impossible to solve by the reader. Sibella (what a pretty name—and with such a beautiful face to match!) was talented enough to write a case where the evidence offered leads that took the reader through a process of solving the mystery.
One thing I always look for in a novel is strong minor characters, the kind that only show up briefly but threaten to steal the show with their entertaining appearances in the story. This novel was filled with great minor characters like Raleigh’s demanding supervisor, Agent Phaup, and Annette, a feisty FBI lab technician. How’s this for a memorable introduction:
At the far end of the lab a young woman waited for me. She wore a white lab coat with faded jeans and wool socks with Birkenstock sandals.
“You must be Annette.” I extended my hand.
“No, I’m Nettie,” she said. “Don’t ever call me Annette.”
These types of characters keep the storyline fresh and entertaining. Aside from the great humor and strong mystery elements, be prepared for some gripping suspense and graphic crime scenes. Faint of heart beware.
The novel unfolds in the beautiful city and surrounding countryside of Richmond, a city steeped in the charm and elegance that has since faded from many older cities but continues to live vibrantly in this Southern abode. Many of the fictional plantations are based on real ones that continue to offer year-round tours today, such as Shirley Plantation and others nearby (there are many more to visit besides the ones photographed in this feature; just visit the links below to read about all of them and for more pictures). Richmond landmarks, such as Monument Avenue and St. John’s Church (where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech) also offer real settings for the fictional action in the city.
However, The Clouds Roll Away offers only a taste of what Richmond and Virginia have to offer tourists. To learn more, please visit the links in the Tourism Guide below. Whether you’re looking for a romantic bed-and-breakfast getaway or a family-fun trip with the kids, you will not be disappointed by Virginia. My first literary tourism trip was on a family vacation when I was twelve. I read a historic novel about Williamsburg while visiting the actual town, and it was an experience I will always treasure.
One thing is for certain, however: you don’t have to be a history buff like me to enjoy a trip to Virginia. When the state motto is “Virginia Is For Lovers,” how can you go wrong? If you don’t believe me, just check out their state tourism website and the wide range of attractions. The web links below provide all the necessary travel information, so buy the book and then book your trip! And if you go, let us know here how you enjoyed the novel and the trip.
Special Note: The Clouds Roll Away is the third installment in the Raleigh Harmon series. Although it’s not necessary to read the series in order, I highly recommend that you start with the first breakout novel, The Stones Cry Out, also set in Richmond. If you’re like me, you’ll get very curious about all the references to the first two books in The Clouds Roll Away. I was just anxious to check out Richmond in literature as fast as possible, but now I wish I had started at the beginning.
Ironically, when my review copy of The Clouds Roll Away first arrived, a passing storm had just knocked out my power. Normally, this would have been a frustrating situation, but as I started to read the book by candlelight, I immediately fell in love with the historic estates, which had all been built in an era long before power lines lit these elegant homes. That connection enriched the experience of reading this novel, which Sibella described as her "Love letter to Richmond."
A Special Thanks
I was very excited when Sibella arranged for her friend Dean Hoffmeyer from the Richmond Times-Dispatch to send over some of his beautiful photographs of the Richmond area for this feature. They are quite dazzling, aren't they? I knew he might say no to me, but he couldn't say no to Sibella! Dean, like Sibella, has also been nominated for a Pulitzer. This was a special treat for me, and I am very greatful, Dean. And thank you to Charles City County for sending over the wonderful shots of the historic James River Plantations!
Upcoming/Current press for this feature:
The Richmond Times-Dispatch announced this feature in their book notes section in August.
Virginia Public Radio
Public radio fans are the perfect group for literary tourism. Radio IQ in Virgina interviewed me about this feature recently. I will post the interview below when it airs.
The Montgomery Advertiser is the metro newspaper for the Montgomery region. Teri Greene did a great feature on literary tourism and the SELTI project with several articles.
My interview with Sibella: http://sibellagiorello.blogspot.com/2010/08/oh-readers-places-you-will-go.html
Sibello Giorello (learn about the author, order the books)
Shirley Plantation (from the novel)
Charles City County Attractions (the James River Estates, includes main visitor center)
National Park Service: James River Plantation Itinerary
Agecroft Hall (built 500 years ago in Tudor England and physically moved to Richmond)
Richmond Visitors Bureau
Official Virginia tourism website (includes downloadable travel guide)
Thomas Nelson (publisher since 1798; how appropriate!)
Join the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative on Facebook for email updates
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** In case you’re wondering what “penultimate” means: second to last (in this case, a reference to husbands). If you’re like me, you had to learn that one in context.
For a fun mystery-related blog, visit Kaye Barley's Meanderings and Muses, where she interviews popular novelists, including Pat Conroy!