The Sketch Box
THE SKETCH BOX is an historical mystery set in a colony of independent women artists who found their creative voices painting on the shores of Carmel-by-the-Sea in the 1920s. Their story unfolds within the culture of racial injustice suffered by the Japanese immigrants—fishermen and abalone divers who made their living on the shores of the dangerous, but beautiful Pacific—and the renegade culture of the Rum Runners who sailed the international waters carrying Canadian whisky to Carmel and other coastal towns during Prohibition.
It’s July, 1924, and Sarah Cunningham is preparing for her first solo art show in Paris, when she receives the news of her sister Ada’s death, an ocean away in Carmel, California. Sarah travels nearly two weeks to be at the inquest, only to find that the death has been ruled a suicide by the local Marshal. Ada was headstrong, erratic, passionate, and cruel—but she was also joyous and kind and at the very top of her painting career, her seascapes selling as soon as they were painted. And she was about to exhibit her greatest work: a series of portraits that would bring her even wider recognition. Why would she kill herself?
Through getting to know Ada’s friends, her assistant, her former landlady, and her art dealer, Sarah begins to piece together what happened in the days leading up to her sister’s death. From the posh Del Monte Hotel to the windswept sands of Carmel Beach to the poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House, to Point Lobos, Sarah learns the secrets sisters can keep from each other and how far a killer will go to keep her from knowing the truth.
Author’s notes - the sketch box
If I hadn't inherited a landscape painting by my great-aunt, Ada Belle Champlin, and if I hadn't moved to Carmel Valley, California, because of that wondrous landscape, I would still be in Manhattan, and I would have written a different story.
After my husband, Jim, and I moved into our new home, I hung Ada Belle's landscape over the Carmel River stone fireplace. I wondered where she had stood to paint the country road bordered by a row of eucalyptus trees in a golden pasture lit by a blue sky brushed lightly with clouds like white powder puffs. In the background a range of mountains rise in purple splendor.
I am not a painter but I think The Sketch Box started metaphorically on a blank canvas. I had a palette of vivid ideas, but it was not until I brushstroked layer upon layer of pigments onto that imaginary canvas that it became an historical novel, set in 1924 in Carmel’s thriving women’s art colony.
I was very curious about an art colony populated by women who, like my great-aunt, had chosen to be artists at a time when it was declassé for a woman to become a painter. Women were expected to marry and make babies, not art. I wondered how Ada Belle survived under these restraints and emerged as a pioneer early feminist.
Soon I was deep into a mystery plot, inner-weaving the history of Carmel’s art colony with the actions of my characters. As my research expanded, I added real people: the poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una, the painters Armin Hansen, William Ritschel, and August "Gus" Gay, and had them meet my fictional characters in the locations where they had lived. Then I stepped back and let them tell their story.
I became a location scout and went in search of the many historical locations in Monterey where my characters would have spent time, like the Hotel Del Monte, Whalers Cove in Point Lobos, Monterey Bay, La Playa Hotel and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
One autumn evening, my scouting led to Lot 13 on CC Block of Camino Real, where, based on a town map, my great-aunt had lived. I must admit that I had low expectations. There are few original houses left in Carmel and those that have survived have been enlarged until the original homes are hardly recognizable, if not torn down.
Jim and I had had cocktails in Carmel at the La Playa Hotel bar, and then went on a mission down Camino Real to find Lot 13. As we walked, I heard the sound of the surf breaking against the rocky coastline a few blocks away, and I inhaled the same brisk, salty air that Ada Belle would’ve breathed if she had been walking beside me.
It was getting dark on Camino Real when we came upon a parked car with the headlights left on. Jim knocked on the front door and a man in his early sixties came out, thanked us, and switched his car’s lights off.
We told him we were looking for a cottage where my great-aunt, a painter, might have lived in the 1920s. He pointed at an unlit cottage directly across the street and said he’d lived on the street his whole life and an artist had lived there when he was growing up, and then a second artist had moved in around 1973. He gave us her name and phone number. I couldn’t believe my good luck.
The next day I called the current owner of Lot 13. I introduced myself, said her neighbor had given me her phone number, and that my great-aunt, Ada Belle Champlin, might have been the original owner of the studio-cottage where she now lived.
“We must meet,” she said. “Where are you?”
“I'm in Carmel.”
“Then come over now.”
My heart beating fast, I drove down Ocean Avenue to Camino Real and parked in front of Lot 13. The cottage even in daylight was barely visible behind its wooden picket fence and thick canopy of oak trees. I had just unfastened the seatbelt when there was a tap on my window. I rolled it down and said hello to the lovely Mrs. Belinda-Vidor Holliday. After quick introductions, she invited me to come inside.
Stepping over the threshold was like entering another world, another time. In the center of a spacious wooden floor, my eyes climbed up the lofty multipaned windows and skylights on the northern wall, then down onto a paint-stained easel, a half-painted abstract painting layered in vibrant colors, paintbrushes sticking out of glass jars, and a tray of tubes of oil paint. All my senses took in this painter’s paradise and I felt the presence of my great-aunt applauding my arrival. I could’ve yelped with joy but I didn’t want to scare my hostess.
Mrs. Holliday was very informed about the previous owner of the cottage as she too was very curious about its history, but she didn’t think it was my great-aunt who had built it. I hid my disappointment and asked if she could show me any files she had on the cottage’s history.
She brought me into a small side room furnished with a trundle bed and desk. While she looked, I still hoped I was standing in the room where Ada Belle had slept. Mrs. Holliday couldn't find the documents that would prove if this was so, but she asked me to join her for a cup of tea in the studio. We found we had much in common and were soon calling each other by our first names.
When I told her my great-aunt had been a founding member of the Carmel Art Association, Belinda said there was a photographic portrait exhibition of past artist members on display at the gallery. I had only seen a blurry, pixelated photo of my great-aunt and the prospect of seeing what she actually looked like gave me goose bumps.
“Let's go,” said Belinda with a twinkle in her bright blue eyes as if she'd read my thoughts.
In the gallery, we slowly walked along the rows of photographs honoring deceased CAA members since its inception in 1927. Belinda, a long-time member, pointed out several artists she'd known. We were disappointed not to find Ada Belle's photograph.
Back at the cottage, Belinda told me how she had saved it from a developer who would have demolished it.
On my second visit, Belinda said she had found the architectural folder. As I flipped through the yellowed pages of almost a century ago, my heart skipped. “Look, Belinda,” I called out. “Here's the original deed.”
There it was. A deed from 1923 with Ada Belle Champlin's signature above the architect’s, M.J. Murphy, who had also helped Robinson Jeffers build the Tor House. And whose store and lumberyard are still a presence, though now farther inland in Carmel Valley.
Belinda was as thrilled as I was and we made a copy for me to take home. While standing at her printer, I felt certain Ada Belle was peering over my shoulder while I copied the documents proving her ownership of the cottage on Lot 13. Every time I return to visit Belinda, who is now my good friend, I feel the same rush of excitement as I did the first time.
After I told Belinda my great-aunt had named the cottage “The Sketch Box,” she had a wooden sign carved with the name and had it nailed to her front gate. She said it was the right thing to do.
And the right thing for me to do was to entitle my historical mystery The Sketch Box. May you enter its gate and find its story as exciting as the first time I stepped into Ada Belle’s cottage.