Mary Logue’s new mystery, “The Streel,” published by the University of Minnesota Press, features a tough and resilient teenage heroine fresh off the boat from Ireland. Young Brigid and her brother Seamus leave their family behind as they flee the potato famine, looking for work in the New World. But what they find is a whole bunch of trouble and, as in any mystery worth its salt, a mysterious dead body.
Logue, who lives in Golden Valley, has written more than a dozen books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and was the author of the Star Tribune’s inaugural summer serial, “Giving Up the Ghost.”
Here, she talks about the genesis of the spunky Brigid, the book’s mysterious title, and how she fell in love with doing research.
Q: You say in the afterword that you were inspired by the lives of your Irish great-grandmothers. What was it about them that made you want to capture them in a novel?
A: The more I learned about them I was so taken with their strength, to give up the lives they knew, to leave their countries, to make a family and start a new life in what was, to them, a wild frontier. What bravery, what hope, what determination.
Q: The main character, Brigid Reardon, seems competent and strong beyond her years, and she also seems like a feminist before feminism was a thing. Was there a reason you wanted your character to be so tough and self-sufficient?
A: Both of my grandmothers lost their husbands and were forced to raise their children on their own. One was a seamstress and one was a postmaster. Brigid might be seen as a feminist now, but I think at the time she was just a very determined young woman who did not want to follow in the footsteps of some of the women she saw around her.
Q: Please explain the title. “Streel” is a word I didn’t know.
A: “Streel” is something my mother called us when we girls were not looking very well put together. When I was doing research on the book about Mae Kirwin — my mother’s mother — I found that word in the Oxford English Dictionary and realized it was Gaelic and not very nice. It meant a slatternly woman.
I like a title to be a mystery itself. In many ways the title came before the book.
Q: What was the genesis of the book, and how did you go about researching it?
A: When I found the boat manifest listing my ancestors coming to America, when I read about the potato famine and how the Irish were forced to leave their homes, I was so taken with their stories and I imagined how hard it must have been to make it across this wild country. My relatives stopped and stayed in the Midwest, but the country was “opening up” as we used to say, and what would they have found if they had gone farther.
Also, in writing the book about my grandmother I discovered how much I adored doing research. I often had to stop myself from doing any more research — it’s all too easy to fall down a rabbit hole, and then no writing gets done.
Q: The book follows the form of a classic melodrama — the sleek and powerful villain, the female victim trying to overcome almost impossible odds. But you turn it on its head a little, because your female refuses to see herself as a victim. What about that kind of story line appeals to you? And why did you decide to play with the form?
A: I love your read on this. I’m not sure I was conscious of that at all. But then I do have her tied to railroad tracks so it must have been lurking in my mind. There’s a lot of energy in these classic tropes and I think when we tweak them we capture that energy and allow our readers to see them in a whole new way.
Q: You’ve written a lot of different kinds of books — a biography/memoir, mysteries, novels, poetry — what is it about mysteries that keeps bringing you back?
A: I just think, as a writer, a mystery gives one so much room to move. Within the genre there are so many forms. I want my books — whatever form they take — to be compelling, to pull the reader through them. I want the reader to always be asking, what’s going to happen next? Maybe it’s easiest to do that in a mystery.
Q: What mysteries do you love to read?
A: Oh, my, my mystery reading was very much based on the old standard hard-boiled writers — Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. And I love the British women writers — Josephine Tey, Frances Fyfield and Dorothy Sayers. I like mysteries that are not so much “whodunits” as “whydidithappen.”
Q: So this is the first in your “Deadwood” series. Will we see these characters in subsequent books?
A: Actually, the next book will have Brigid traveling farther west. Yes, there will be some repeat characters, but the next book will take place in Cheyenne. I love finding out how these towns started and what life was like in the late 1800s. Women were actually allowed quite a bit of freedom in the so-called frontier towns. Which suits my Brigid character just fine.
Q: Do you write every day? What’s your writing strategy?
A: When I’m really cranking on a book, I try to write three pages a day — it doesn’t matter when it gets done — and I do try to write every day so that I keep myself submerged in the world of the story.
My writing strategy is persistence and perseverance.