Friday, May 12, 2017

How Hoarding Inspired My Murder Mystery Novel

For more information about Susan Calder's books, or to purchase, please visit her Books We Love Author Page

Mystery writers joke that one thing they love about the genre is that they get to kill off people in their lives who annoy them. In the case of my new novel, Ten Days in Summer, this joke is mostly true.   

At the time I was developing the idea for the story, my siblings and I were engaged in assorted legalities regarding our late grandmother’s house. With our mother also gone, we had to deal with her only sibling, a hoarder who occupied the home’s second floor. He drove us bonkers.   
Grandma's Bed
Long before my grandmother died, my uncle’s stuff started taking over her premises on the ground floor. I don’t remember visiting there without passing stacks of paper and boxes in the hall. Her living room gradually filled up with television sets that my mechanically-inclined uncle had offered to repair for his neighbours and friends. One afternoon, my young sons counted 22 TV sets in the room. Undoubtedly, the owners had long ago given up on my uncle getting around to repairing them.   
Procrastination is a common trait of hoarders. They can’t decide what to do with an object, so do nothing. A more surprising trait, I learned from my research, is perfectionism. Since they must do something perfectly right, they end up not doing it at all.
                                                 Grandma's Table
When it came to dealing with the house that he and my mother inherited, my uncle let everything slide. Scaffolding erected to repair the siding became a permanent fixture. The front steps were a hazard for postal carriers. Notices for unpaid bills accumulated.

My siblings and I left him alone with all this until he told us the house would go to auction if he didn’t pay the city taxes by a cut-off date. Since his respectable amount of pension money had gone somewhere, we paid the tax bill, then paid the next year and the next. We realized the only way to get our money back was to sell the house. My uncle dug in his heels. This was his mother’s home; he would die there.
Except, we discovered, he wasn’t living there anymore. After a water pipe burst, the house became uninhabitable. He lived in his car for several years and ate all his meals at places like McDonald’s. We had assumed that whenever we phoned he just happened to be driving.

Grandma's back porch 
In short, as I was mulling story ideas, my uncle was being a huge pain in my neck. I decided this novel would involve my insurance adjuster sleuth, Paula Savard, investigating a suspicious house fire, where the owner died. I made my victim a hoarder.
The suspects were stand-ins for my siblings and me: two nephews and a niece concerned about their inheritance. Curiously, the annoying uncle I killed off turned out to be the most sympathetic member of his fictional family. I learned much about hoarding while writing the book and confess I understand it better than I’d like, since I have a little of that tendency.
What happened to my real-life uncle? The police found him passed out in his car and brought him to the hospital. They patched him up with medical treatment and decent food and released him to a nursing home. 
Now aged 83, he probably could live independently, but he’s a sociable type and enjoys the residence environment. He loves the politics of the place, especially advocating for the residents against management, and has taken up a new hobby: chess. The first time I visited him at his residence, I couldn’t get over the neatness of his room.  
However, on a recent visit, I noticed stuff creeping in. I suspect some of the staff find him frustrating, and others think he’s a hoot. I thank him for the inspiration.