A writer from the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Ashley-Ruth Bernier has had stories published in the distinguished literary journal The Caribbean Writer. She’s a teacher at a local elementary school who manages to write in her spare time while also raising a family. Her EQMM debut story, “Rise,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2022). In this post she talks about a very early inspiration for her interest in the mystery genre. —Janet Hutchings
It was a school night, and a Monday night, at that—a school night at the beginning of an entire week full of them. It was right at the heels of a long day of learning and teaching, of play practices and band and homework. I broke the rules anyway. I picked up dinner. Left my 2nd grader at home with his dad (and Minecraft), and loaded my older three kids into the car. Our destination? The movies. This lifelong Agatha Christie fanatic was headed for a full-circle kind of moment: I was taking my kids to see the newly released movie version of Death on the Nile.
While we stood in line for popcorn and candy, I told my kids about the winter I’d discovered Ms. Christie’s magic—”winter” being a purely technical term, as Decembers 23 degrees north of the equator are more short sleeves and sunshine than sweaters and snow. I told them about pulling the novels off the shelves of the only bookstore on island and eagerly bringing them back up the hill to my grandmother’s house, where I’d read them at night by candlelight. This is when my 5th grader raised an eyebrow at me. “So . . . candlelight?” He’d asked. The look on his face was somehow skeptical and smug at the same time, like he’d realized a truth he’d always known but never thought I would admit. “No electric lights, Mom? Is that what things were really like way back in the 90s?”
Oh, I contemplated not buying that kid any popcorn. Instead, I reminded all of them that during the fall and winter that I was 13, everyone on St. Thomas was reading by candlelight. Cooking, doing homework, paying bills; all of it. Our island had been slammed by Hurricane Marilyn that September, which had destroyed homes and power lines along with everyone’s sense of security and routine. By December, everyone was in rebuilding mode. My mother fretted about hiring a contractor to reconstruct our home, which the hurricane had completely totaled, while I worried about the reconstruction of something far more pressing: my book collection. Sure, there were some books I wanted to replace outright, but it seemed like a perfect time to discover something new . . . something with more nuance and depth than Goosebumps and Fear Street, but with themes that weren’t too explicit for a kid who was barely old enough to watch PG-13 movies. One afternoon at Dockside Bookshop, my mom suggested a book by an author she’d enjoyed decades before. The book was And Then There Were None, and the author, of course, was Agatha Christie. That was all it took. Within those first few chapters, I was hooked.
Everyone wanted a break from the heat and darkness of post-hurricane life, and over the next few months, those books gave me exactly that—they took me away to sinister manors in the English countryside, mysterious train rides, and deadly cruises on the Nile. I read book after book, as fast as Dockside could stock them. I learned the beats of a “cozy” and studied the quirky characters essential to stories like these: lazy heirs and heiresses, dusty colonels, nosy spinsters; and the sharp-witted detectives (I liked Ms. Marple better than Tommy and Tuppence, but loved Poirot best of all) who unpacked their crimes and desires so neatly for everyone at the end. I wanted nothing more than to create that kind of magic myself. My first attempt at writing a cozy of my own the summer I was 15—creepy old guest house, a crotchety old woman with a ton of money, and a teenage detective—was spectacularly awful. But oh, I thought it was something. I’d followed Ms. Christie’s formula perfectly. How could “Peril in Livingstown” be anything but a success?
I believe I know the answer to that question now. Why that story, and so many of my early attempts at writing cozies; were . . . um, less than stellar. Ms. Christie’s stories worked so well because she wrote about who, what, and where she knew. Her novels were filled with the settings and character types she encountered in her circles and travels abroad. There weren’t major appearances by people like me (young, Black; a little bit absentminded and dreamy), and I’m fine with that now—the novels were written for a different society, a different zeitgeist. But maybe, back then, I’d wanted to see myself on those pages. I tried for so long to write what she knew, when, as it turns out, what I needed to do was follow her example in a different way. I needed to fill my pages with the personalities and settings I knew best: dark-skinned men and women with thick curls and neat braids, clownish politicians, womanizers in huge gold chains, and strong, gifted young people with a reserve of quiet confidence. Beaches. Carnival. An old parochial school in the heart of historic Charlotte Amalie. Maybe a post-hurricane landscape, in one of my future drafts. Ms. Christie’s magic lay in the way she made us believe in the truth of the stories she wrote. By putting myself on the page, as she always did, I hope I’m approaching even a fraction of that gift.
As for our night at the movies? Well, it was everything my heart had hoped for, watching my kids fall right into the trance of that story . . . marveling at the setting, shrieking at every murder, pouncing on every clue; sharing their theories about who the murderer was. Watching the shock on their faces as Poirot laid it all out for them. Hearing their excitement as we left the theater, not just about how much fun the movie was, but about the diverse cast; about seeing Black and Brown and LGBTQ characters with quirks and agency and power. Listening to my sons devise the plot of their own mystery story on the ride home was perhaps the very best moment of that night, however—a moment that truly did complete the circle that had started so long ago in the tiny mystery section of an island bookstore. We got out of the car, still full of popcorn and under the spell of a master storyteller. Those stories still do it, even this many years after their debut. They sweep us away from the present, back to the outsized personalities and majestic settings of the world Ms. Christie created. They still contain the best kind of magic.
They still inspire so many of us to create magic of our own.