I was expecting a quiet time in the small seaside fishing village that is Newport, Oregon, up until someone was murdered and I was on the case. Just kidding, that’s the plot of the cozy mystery I picked up in the giftshop of a tiny Newport winery.
I’d come with my partner to Newport to relax and unplug at the literary themed Sylvia Beach Hotel and to visit friends who lived in the area. We’d all stopped by the winery for an evening drink while discussing sightseeing plans for the next day, which I hoped included the two major local visitor attractions, the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse (Pronounced “Ya-kee-na”). I’ve never been inside a lighthouse before, so as soon as I saw Newport’s lighthouse I was obsessed.
“Puffs of vapor swirled around its curved sides, sometimes obscuring the top […] A moment like this epitomized for me the mysterious and magical role lighthouses play in the scheme of things. They are both protectors and seducers […]”
(Murder at Yaquina Head p.2)
On our way out of the winery, my eyes were drawn to the cover of a book which depicted the lighthouse. In the gift shop next to wine bottles, fancy corks, and other kitchen accoutrements, was a shelf of Oregon coast guide books and works of fiction. On further examination, I discovered the book which had caught my eye was written by a local author, Ron Lovell, and it was the first of the author’s Thomas Martindale cozy mystery detective novel series all taking place in and around Newport. Intrigued, I bought it to begin reading that night.
If you’re not familiar with the term “cozy mystery”, they’re often quick read, murder mysteries that take place in a tight-knight, small community, and Newport definitely is that. At first glance, there doesn’t seem a lot to do in Newport. It’s more of a small working fishing village than anything else. The two-block downtown street pier-side buildings house seafood processing plants and a few touristy shops dot the other side of the street. From what I’d experienced with our friends already, Newport appeared to be a small, intimate community of sea-life enthusiasts. It’s the perfect setting for a cozy mystery.
Back at the hotel that evening, with my nose in the book, I was hooked. Martindale discovered a murder on the balcony of the lighthouse. Then events led to a fearful fight and near drowning at the aquarium, and eventually a showdown atop Newport’s iconic bridge. I couldn’t put the book down. There were a few times the main character made what I thought were some far-fetched leaps in judgment, but I was willing to go with it. I was on vacation and a light read that stretched the limits of believably now and again was just what I needed.
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Late the next morning, after some strongly caffeinated tea, our friends picked us up in their car to show us around town. The first stop was the lighthouse. We drove the winding road to the parking lot beside the visitor center. Sadly, it was there that we learned the lighthouse was closed for the day. All inside tours were cancelled, but we could still walk the grounds around it. We headed out to the cliffside where I could only stand at the base of the tall tower and look up at where the scene in my book had played out.
“The building was old: 1872 was chiseled into a panel above the front door. I guess it had earned its moldy smell. From the beacon’s light reflecting off the walls, I could just make out the dim outline of a spiral staircase in another room at the end of a short hall. I walked slowly, half afraid to go up, but knowing I could do nothing else.”
(Murder at Yaquina Head p.42)
Leaving the windswept, flower-covered cliff top and its closed tower, we headed to the aquarium. Our friend works at the aquarium and we were lucky, he had time to give us a personal tour. I’d seen photos online of the aquarium’s star attraction – underwater glass tunnels. Walking through them, it was all I could do to not smush my face to the glass as the sharks and rays swam around us. Thankfully I was still half listening to my friend, because I’d had no idea that I was currently standing inside the remodeled tank that had once been home to Keiko the killer whale, made famous by the movie Free Willy. Shocked, I realized that I was standing yet again, only feet from where Lovell had set one of the more memorable scenes of the book.
Reluctantly, I followed my friend and guide out of the tunnels. My sadness was soon overcome, however, because he led us to a behind-the-scenes room where we were able to play with an octopus! Being familiar with each other, the octopus and our friend teased one another. He tickled the suction cups on the tentacles and the octopus responded with a spray of water. When I wondered whether he was just annoying the octopus, my friend explained that the octopus choose when to interact. If they don’t want to play, they’ll move away to the other side of the tank. They’re actually very social creatures and very smart.
After saying goodbye to our new octopus friend, we climbed an outside set of stairs to a doorway. Once through, I blinked at the room which appeared dim after the bright outside sun. I was standing at the edge of what appeared to be a very large pool. This was the same shark tank we had walked through earlier, except now we were staring down at it from the top. It was here that the near drowning had happened in my book. Where Martindale had fallen in, there was now a diver donning scuba gear, preparing for a dive.
“Aquarium officials planned to replace the whale with a new sea exhibit […] Visitors would be able to walk under the water in a Plexiglass tunnel, but that new area was many months away from opening. The tank made me feel sad and lonely […] I didn’t see him move out of the shadows and shove me into the water.”
(Murder at Yaquina Head p.132-133)
The rest of the day we spent visiting with our friend as he drove us to the college and university maritime centers of Newport. He also doubles as an aquarium tank design professor so he was able to take us into lab rooms to show us his tanks and those of his colleagues. The Oregon State University Marine Science Center had also made an appearance in the cozy mystery. It seemed Lovell had hardly spared a place in town.
We ended the day with a tour and pint of beer at Rogue Brewery, which is located just under and off to the side of one side of Newport’s iconic bridge. We had driven over the bridge, but looking up at it was a much more impressive view. I could just see in my mind the final scene of the cozy mystery.
“The Yaquina Bay Bridge is an architectural gem […] this bridge has nifty-looking Art Deco pylons to set off its high center arch. […] As I went over the side, I grabbed hold of a rusty girder, which left my feel dangling helplessly in the air.”
(Murder at Yaquina Head p.183, 192)
Thankfully for us, we had an enjoyable day with our friends with no surprise twist at the end. If you’re planning to visit the Sylvia Beach Hotel for some quality unplugging time, I highly recommend picking up one of Lovell’s cozy mysteries, which can be found at several of the shops in the area, and then spend a day visiting some of the locations mentioned in the novel. You’ll bring the book to life, and it’ll make your visit more exciting.
*Note: Murder at Yaquina Head does include triggers such as: murder, adult content, a shark attack, and rape.
Have you been to Newport, Oregon? Are you a cozy mystery fan? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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