"The First Murder," She Wrote - Carol Goodman Kaufman’s New Mystery Novel

By Albert Stern / BJV Editor

If you’ve read the bio at the end of the Traveling With Jewish Taste articles that Carol Goodman Kaufman has contributed to the BJV for 17 years, you know that our columnist’s resume is incredibly diverse – but let me tell you that the accomplishments she doesn’t usually include are as impressive as those she does.

She earned a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology; worked as a university lecturer; done post-graduate work in criminology; authored an non-fiction study, Sins of Omission: The Jewish Community’s Reaction to Domestic Violence; served as the Hadassah National Co-Chair of Youth Aliyah; published three children’s books under the pen name of Carolinda Goodman; contributed stories on food history to national magazines; hosts the “Murder We Write” crime fiction podcast; and interviewed renowned Jewish authors for the Berkshire Jewish Voice.

Now – after experiencing just about all of the twists and turns a first-time author might have to face on the road to publication – she can add novelist to that overstuffed curriculum vitae. The First Murder is a mystery set in the Berkshires that revolves around a tight-knit group of friends whose (mostly) peaceful lives are upended when one meets an untimely, and seemingly rather sordid end. At the center of this circle of friends is Boston brahmin and former New York City cop Caleb Crane, police chief of the town of Queensbridge – a fictionalized version of a town famously known for its three stop signs, two police officers, and one police car. More accustomed perhaps to solving mysteries such as finding out who might have thrown the garbage to the bottom of the 15-foot cliff, Chief Crane not only who killed his close friend, but navigate the emotional landmines amidst his community, circle of friends, and beloved wife – any of whom might have had either a plausible or lunatic reason to have committed the murder. And, it should go without saying, Caleb Crane carries some dark baggage of his own.

One of the things that works best about The First Murder is the way Carol captures the tensions between the locals who have been here forever and newcomers of various stripes. As a Pittsfield native who now lives more of a second-homeowner life in the Berkshires, she is able to capture both the insider and outsider points of view. Throughout the novel, twists are provided when Chief Crane stumbles upon connections among the suspects that, depending on whether one was a townie or an interloper, would either be common knowledge or dark secrets. Not only that, there are many of Carol’s other interests and areas of expertise– food, gardening, psychology, and Jewish life – interwoven into the plot.

It’s a fun mystery that fans of both the genre and the Berkshires will enjoy. And the early reviews have been glowing: “An engrossing, thorny whodunit,” according to Kirkus Reviews, “set in a small town with big secrets.” It’s now available through online retailers and should be on the shelves of all our bookstores – check the BJV and the BJV online for author talks that were still being scheduled at press time.

In March, I spoke with Carol about The First Murder. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Now you’re a published mystery writer and, as your podcast attest, you’re also a mystery aficionado. In my experience, while many crime novels follow similar formulas, what differentiates them is the setting. So what would you say are the Berkshires’ unique or specific characteristics that make it an interesting setting for a book like The First Murder?

Well, I think there are a couple things that make the Berkshires interesting. Number one is they're so gorgeous. And because I use Purim a theme in the book, a holiday where nothing is as it seems to be, I think that makes for a good setting. I mean, the natural beauty of the Berkshires, the cultural level with the music and the dance and the theater – we have everything. And yet, behind closed doors, who knows what's really happening?

What do you consider yourself now – a second homeowner or perhaps a part time resident? Do you think this is really a place of deep, dark secrets? I only say that because I don't.

First of all, I grew up in Pittsfield, so to me, right, so it's sort of like…I wouldn't exactly call it making aliyah back. I'm a returnee. They say you can't go home again, but frankly, I'm trying my hardest to make myself go home again. I love it out in the Berkshires. It's my happy place.

I talk to myself a lot. I like a story. I love mysteries. I've loved mystery stories ever since I started reading the Happy Hollisters as a child and then went to Nancy Drew and then went to Agatha Christie on and on and on. I love a mystery, and part of it may be because I love puzzles. I like to see if we can solve something. Can I guess who the evil person is? And also, I like to see justice. And in the genre, there are certain formulas you have to follow, and for the most part, you have to bring about justice. At the end, you have to have a solution. You can't just leave it hanging.

And do I really think that there's deep, dark secrets here? Oh, yeah. Every place.

So what kind of miscreant do you think the Berkshires will attract? What are the advantages here for a criminal?

Oh, wealthy second homeowners, for one. It would be good for a financial fraud. I can see a con man coming in and doing a scam – you're giving me ideas for new story. Well, we've had horrible crimes. We've had people gone missing, right? I know two women who have gone missing and one woman who was killed right near us. Someone in that area murdered. No one knows what happened. I mean, there can be evil working within the native population, and there can be evil coming in from outside.

Here you hear people say, well, you're not really a local till you've been here for four generations. As moves through the story, he stumbles upon nuggets of information that would be common knowledge to people who are from here, such as the motorcycle accident that left one character in a wheelchair, but that he didn’t know about even though he works with her. I thought that was a very interesting way to have a character in that position. Was that a very conscious decision on your part rather than making him a full time or a native of the Berkshires?

You know, I don't think it was a conscious decision. I like the idea that he comes in. People coming in from outside can see it with fresh eyes, without the baggage of multiple generations. That's why he has to be a good detective. As an author you have to throw some clues here and there, but Caleb has to figure things out himself, and that's what propels the narrative. If he knew everything all along, he would just say, oh, well, this and this, A,B,C, and D, this must be the killer.

What role does the Berkshires play in the story?

I wanted a setting that I was familiar with that I would be able to write about knowledgeably. And there are certain natural, physical features of the Berkshires that cry out to me – the change of the seasons. I mean, I lived in Colorado, where there's brown and there's green. That's it. If there's white, the white is there for 30 minutes, and it melts.

Here, the way the trees are bare in the winter I saw as a metaphor for bearing souls. The hills are like mother's breasts – very comforting, very welcoming. I needed to set my story in a place that I was familiar with. I can't imagine writing a story about a place like India that I'd never been to. I mean, I could look at Google Earth. I could read online. I could make things up, but it wouldn't have that flavor. It wouldn't have the fragrance of the Berkshires. What the earth smells like in April when things are thawing out. There's a certain fragrance to it. And there's a feel going over potholes, too.