Susan Oleksiw is the author of twelve mysteries in three series. Below the Tree Line is the first in the Pioneer Valley series. Her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. She also published A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery and served as co-editor for The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Learn more about Susan and her books at her website.
In Below the Tree Line, the first in the Pioneer Valley series, I set out to give the reader a sense of place and what it’s like to live and work on a small farm. Setting is important to me, and I wanted to create as vivid a landscape in this series as I had in my two previous ones. The landscape of this area is worth a visit.
The Mellingham series with Chief Joe Silva was set in a small town on a New England coast, much like the one I grew up in. I knew how people behaved, and I knew local institutions. For Family Album I learned about antiques and for Come About for Murder, I honed up on my sailing skills. My next series was set in India and featured Indian-American photographer Anita Ray, living at her aunt’s tourist hotel in a resort I knew well from the time I lived in a nearby city. In Under the Eye of Kali, I talked a lot about the food, and in When Krishna Calls, I wrote about the way village lenders have trapped villagers into debt for generations.
I expected to follow a similar path when I began writing the Pioneer Valley series, featuring healer and farmer Felicity O’Brien. As I began my research, I expected to add to my store of knowledge (meager at best) about farming and the like. But this time things were different.
Like many others, I have mourned the disappearance of honeybees. But I began to notice other changes in the natural world as well. Large flocks of wrens seemed to be everywhere, and now we have blue jays. But other birds are missing. Our two or three pairs of cardinals are down to one pair, not often seen. We have fewer chickadees, purple finches, and white-throated sparrows. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Baltimore Oriole.
The nature of the forests is changing also, and this is something that will concern Felicity. Part of her income comes from timbering, and any change there will be serious for her. Any reports of new infestations can mean disaster for a farmer. Felicity knows her property well, but even she learns a few things in Below the Tree Line. It seems her parents didn’t tell her everything.
Felicity tracks the weather, like every other farmer, but now she has to track an unstable environment. A neighbor is watching his best maple trees migrate north, and another has been turned out of a field he’s been renting for years because the owners can’t pay the taxes. And then there’s the temptation of selling out to a developer. Why a stranger is offering an inflated price for her land stumps Felicity, and she teams up with her partner, Jeremy Colson, to figure this out.
Despite the challenges of her situation, Felicity has a few assets—patience, doggedness, and observation skills. She also has the support of the people in her community, many of whom know her as a healer, one in a long line of healers that includes her mother and grandmother. But she still lives in a world that teeters precariously on the edge of major loss and disruption. This is the world most people don’t see while driving through on their way to summer concerts or ski resorts. But this is the world that interests me and I hope will interest my readers.
Below the Tree Line, A Pioneer Valley Mystery
In the Massachusetts countryside, family secrets run deep . . . but an outside threat could uproot them all.
Felicity O'Brien hopes the warning shot fired from her porch is enough to scare off the intruder who's been snooping around her family's Massachusetts farm. Days later, two young women are found dead nearby. Somebody wants something bad enough to kill for it, but all she has is the neglected property her parents passed down to her. Joining forces with her friend Jeremy Colson, Felicity tries to uncover the truth and save herself and her land from those who are capable of unthinkable harm.