One of my favorite passages in an early Victoria Trumbull mystery never made it into print.
Victoria, my 92-year-old poet protagonist in the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, has some of the most exuberant gardens on Martha’s Vineyard. A lifelong Island resident, she attributes her gardening success to decades of composting.
She has four compost heaps behind the Norway maple at the end of her drive. The heaps are bounded by wooden forklift pallets. Every day she empties the compost bucket that she keeps under the kitchen sink onto whichever heap she deems is still brewing, and then covers the dumpings with leaves or grass clippings or dirt to discourage skunks. In cool weather, you can see the steam rising from Victoria’s brewing compost. Into the bucket under the sink she dumps not only the normal coffee grounds, eggshells, and orange peels that most composters recommend, but chicken bones, bacon fat, and rusty nails.
My favorite passage came about one morning when I looked up from my computer screen in astonishment. I had just written that Victoria’s compost heap had exploded.
How was I going to explain that to readers?
My story, up to this point, involved a villain who dabbles in drugs and explosives. I pondered on the odd happening of the exploding compost heap, and finally decided on the following: What if the villain takes a bag full of zucchini from his own garden to the DEA agent who was onto him? The villain has hollowed out one the zucchini, filled it with contact explosive, and carefully buried it under a couple of intact zucchini. The unsuspecting DEA agent, the would-be victim, removes one of the top zucchini, cooks it, and eats it. However, enough zucchini is enough. So he carries the bag of remaining squash to the house of his friend, Victoria Trumbull. She’s not home, so he leaves the bag in her entry.
But Victoria is away for a couple of days, and the zucchini begins to rot.
The tenant who lives in Victoria’s garden shed, a fastidious guy, notices the bag of limp zucchini in Victoria’s entry, and knowing Victoria won’t be home for another day or two, carries the bag — gently, as the bottom of the bag is oozing rotten zucchini juice — to the compost heap.
Because Victoria puts meat scraps and bones in her compost heap, a family of skunks, a mother and five babies, comes out every night and paws through the day’s goodies.
Victoria returns. That evening, while she and her granddaughter, Elizabeth, are eating supper, they hear a loud detonation and smell a strong skunk smell. When they investigate the next morning, they find the compost heap has vanished and a skunk tail is hanging from the antenna of Elizabeth’s convertible.
That was one of the greatest passages I’d ever written. I printed it up and submitted it to my editor. My editor returned my manuscript with this comment: “It’s taboo in mysteries to kill off children and animals. Especially baby animals.”
I intend to resurrect that passage. In the new version I’ll have the villain paw through the compost heap and it will be his toupee that ends up on the antenna of Elizabeth’s convertible.