Christopher Bollen can recall the moment he knew that Orient would make the perfect backdrop for a murder mystery novel.
Bollen, an author and magazine editor who lives in New York City, was staying at a friend’s North Fork home in 2011 when he became terrified by the eeriness of a dark, starry night in the country. The still nights in Orient, contrasted with the blaring sirens and late-night revelers in New York City, made him suddenly aware of how alone he was on the remote stretch of land, connected to the rest of the island by only a narrow causeway.
“I knew I was being ridiculous, but it occurred to me as an adult that I had never spent a night alone in the country before,” he said. “That kind of Jekyll-and-Hydeness [of the area] stuck with me.
“It’s really sort of at the end of something and there’s no way out,” he said. “All of those elements lent themselves to a setting for a book.”
“Orient” (Harper Collins) is a murder mystery, but also a tale of the tension between North Fork newcomers and those whose families have lived here for generations.
The troubled young protagonist, Mills Chevern, makes his way here when he’s invited by native son Paul to his family’s home to get away from the grind of New York City. But he soon finds the locals are wary of outsiders — and when community members start dying under mysterious circumstances, some suspect Mills. He teams up with Beth, an Orient native who has returned to escape Manhattan, and they try to solve the puzzle.
Although some of the townspeople — like suspicious, overprotective mom Pam Muldoon and her sidekick Sarakit Herrig — are portrayed as insular and prudish, Bollen said he hopes he’s given Orient and its people the texture they warrant. Even The Suffolk Times is referenced: A character laments that a reporter isn’t around when a local teen strips down to his underwear to pull a body from the water, but is ready with a camera when a kindergartner has her face painted at a craft fair.
“I tried to make all of the characters as multi-dimensional as possible,” he said. “I hope that no one feels like a cardboard cutout or feels like they’re this one-sided lampooned character at all. I hope it doesn’t seem like its locals versus city folk, that it feels fully formed.”
The book, which has already garnered praise from The Guardian and The Telegraph, conveys a sense of place for Orient through Bollen’s descriptive prose.
“His portrait of Orient is a work of fiction, but it’s the thoroughness with which he imagines — the bittersweet tang of a late-summer picnic, the warped screen in an elderly resident’s sun room, the pickle jar full of keys on a handyman’s dashboard — that brings the town to life for readers, whether or not they’ve ever set foot on Long Island,” said Cal Morgan, Bollen’s editor at Harper Collins.
Bollen, who also wrote the novel “Lighting People,” said he researched the novel by speaking with Orient natives, newcomers and Oysterponds Historical Society members and reading The Suffolk Times. And while he tried to remain as true to real life as possible, he took a few liberties — namely plopping the fictional Sycamore High School in the town (Orient’s three dozen students attend nearby Greenport High School.)
“I hope that the good people of Orient don’t read it and see only the inaccuracies or the license I took,” he said.
Bollen noted that he’d probably feel the same way if someone who wasn’t from Cincinnati — his hometown — wrote a novel set in that city.
“I knew if someone wrote a book about Hyde Park [his neighborhood], I would read it with a critical eye and any mistake in the description I would be outraged by,” he said.
Oysterponds Historical Society interim executive director Karen Lund Rooney said her group harbors no hard feelings about the discrepancies and actually hosted a fundraiser with Bollen earlier this year.
“We’re very grateful to Christopher Bollen for performing a very interesting talk on his novel as a benefit for us,” she said. “I found the book to be very well written and Oysterponds Historical Society will host another reading this summer.”
The date of that talk has yet to be determined, she said.
The book’s title is, of course, the name of the hamlet, but the word also evokes other associations, like sexual orientation or the exotic Far East. Bollen also noted that it’s a nod to “Murder on the Orient Express” and cites Agatha Christie as an influence.
Bollen said he is looking forward to his return to the North Fork this summer.
“I love Orient. I hope to come back,” he said. “If they let me over the causeway.”