It began with a house.
On a sunny Saturday morning, I headed to the Farmers Market in Alameda’s West End. I found a parking spot about a block away, in a residential neighborhood.
The house on the corner was an old Victorian. That’s a term describing those houses built in the era from 1880 to the early 20th century. These houses are common in Alameda. This one was a Queen Anne, a style that often features bay windows and turrets.
This particular house hadn’t been painted in a long time and a number of the window panes were cracked and dirty. Abandoned, I thought. But no, there was a car in the driveway, on that day and on several other Saturdays. Someone was living in the house, despite the state of disrepair.
It made me wonder about the stories hidden within those walls. As writers do, I made up my own story, asking myself, “What if?”
What if my Oakland PI Jeri Howard found a footlocker full of old bones in that house?
As Jeri says in Chapter 1, “I had a feeling this old house had secrets, lots of them.”
The title was always The Things We Keep. Because in life, as in fiction, the things people keep often reveal a lot about them, and the past.
As Jeri investigates any of the cases put to her, she sifts through the tangibles and intangibles that accompany people through life. In Bit Player, an earlier book in the series, Jeri found clues by reading letters that her grandmother wrote.
Now, in The Things We Keep, the bones that Jeri finds are tangibles, along with other items inside the footlocker. DNA and dental records may provide answers, but those are the purview of the police and Jeri has no control over if and when. But discovers clues in other ways. Old newspaper articles accessed online add flesh to the bones. Jeri also finds resources in property records, as well as internet archives and databases.
At one point she searches the California Department of Justice Missing Persons database:
The faces of the missing stared back at me. So many people, their lives and those of their families interrupted. Birthdays and anniversaries uncelebrated, questions unanswered.
The photographs were displayed on the web page – children, teenagers, young adults, older people, male and female, of all ethnic groups. In some cases there were multiple photos, some of those computer-generated to show what the person would look like now.
Photographs are indeed an important element of Jeri’s investigation. She talks with a woman who has a box of photos, hoping that the images will provide clues:
“I keep telling myself I should have this stuff digitized, but I haven’t yet. It was a long time ago. A lot of these snapshots are so faded you can barely see who’s in them.”
She removed the lid and took out several smaller envelopes that held photos and negatives, the kind you’d receive when you had a roll of film developed, back before the digital age.
Those are the tangibles. The intangibles are peoples’ memories, which are often selective and incomplete, colored by their own experiences.
There are many versions of the truth and Jeri must determine which story has the most veracity. The things that people have kept over the years will ultimately lead her to the resolution of this case that stretches back decades.
6 thoughts on “The Things We Keep”
A fabulous tale. And the writer’s imagination about old houses is inspirational.
Thanks! There is definitely something about old houses. My grandma’s house could probably tell a tale or two.
It is amazing what we writers can conjure up with the things we see. I enjoy your Jeri Howard books. Fun post!
Always fun when the imagination leads you down paths.
I pass a few houses like the one in your story, and always wonder what has gone on in there, what lives lived and still lingering, what stories forgotten. Great setup for a novel. Looking forward to your new book.
Yes, houses can certainly tell tales.
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