Portland: A Great Town for Murder!

Portland City Hall

Portland: A great town for murder! Not exactly the kind of line the Portland Visitors Bureau would want to use for their latest ad campaign but, for a thriller writer like me, it sums up a lot of what I love about this town.  At least, when I’m writing one of my McCabe/Savage crime novels.

Any writer will tell you that the right setting, along with the right characters and plot, are the three key elements of any successful thriller series. And trust me when I say setting is every bit as important as the other two.  I mean can you imagine what Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories would be like without the winding foggy streets of Victorian London or the empty moors.  Among contemporary writers Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series simply wouldn’t work without the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines.  Nor would James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux books work as well anywhere else but the steamy bayous of Louisiana.

For me Portland proved to be the perfect setting for my stories right from the moment I typed the first sentence of the first chapter of the first book in the series:  “Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast.”

Along with extreme and often unpredictable weather Portland gives a writer like me a lot of bang for the buck.

Here are just a few examples of places in Portland where I’ve set some of my scenes of murder and mayhem.

The Old Port with its winding cobblestone streets, lined with great bars, restaurants and small boutiques help give the town the urban feel that helps New Yorkers like me and McCabe feel at home. McCabe was eating in one of the newest restaurants when he was called away by the discovery of the body of sixteen year old Katie DuBois.

The working waterfront, home to the Portland Fish Pier, where the body of the beautiful attorney Lainie Goff was found frozen solid inside the trunk of her brand new BMW.

The waves crashing against the rocks out on Peaks Island which is part of the city and where I lived for my first twelve years in Maine.  It was here that the schizophrenic Abby Quinn, witnessed a brutal murder and was pursued by the killer.

The elegant nineteenth century mansions that line the streets of the city’s West End and culminate on the Western Prom where poor Lucinda Cassidy was kidnapped in that early morning fog.

I’ve also used the equally elegant Victorian mansions along the Eastern Prom where residents enjoy spectacular views of Casco Bay and the islands beyond.  Luckily McCabe, who lives there, bought his condo there ten years ago.  There’s no way in hell would he be able to afford one on a cop’s salary today.

The old three deckers on Munjoy Hill which was once a neighborhood for working class families but which, over the last ten years, has been gentrified to the point of becoming the city’s most expensive neighborhood.

There’s a busy and active art scene with lots of studios and galleries like the one where McCabe’s artist girlfriend Kyra showed her work. Portland also boasts a great small museum.  And on the first Friday of every month crowds of art lovers jam Congress Street enjoying street performers and looking for art to buy.

Then there are the landmarks.  The 86 foot tall Portland Observatory, built in 1807, is America’s last standing maritime signal tower with spectacular views of the harbor. I haven’t killed anyone there yet but I’m thinking about it.  The US Custom House is another classic old building . And Portland’s beautiful City Hall, pictured here, which burned down in 1908 and was rebuilt and reopened in 1912.  City Hall’s front steps are where McCabe’s boss, Portland police chief and publicity hound Tom Shockley likes to hold big press conferences announcing yet another murder that needs to be solved.

2 Responses to “Portland: A Great Town for Murder!”

  1. Scott Woodard Says:


    I love the McCabe/Savage stories, in large part, because they’re set in Portland, near where I live. I enjoy mysteries/thrillers where the location is actually a character in the story. You mention Louise Penny’s Three Pines. I also enjoy Gerry Boyle’s Jack McMurrow stories, set in rural Maine; John Lescroart, Dismas Hardy’s legal thrillers set in San Francisco, and Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder’s mysteries set in Manhattan.

    All of you ably weave the settings into your books in ways that takes the reader intimately into the location.

  2. James Hayman Says:

    Thanks Scott.

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