Cynthia Riggs, Her Mystery Revealed
By C.K. Wolfson for Vineyard Style
The afternoon is sunny, and author Cynthia Riggs is in her kitchen fielding phone calls from people interested in booking rooms in her West Tisbury home, the 1700s Cleaveland House, a bed and breakfast which caters especially to artists and writers.
Straightforward and direct though she is, an undercurrent of whimsy hovers about her. Riggs greets her visitor with a broad smile, a touch of banter and offers of refreshments as they settle in the cozy breakfast room of her historic home.
“There’s something about Vineyard women,” she says. “Vineyard women are very strong. There’s a heritage of the women whose husbands went off to sea, and they were left to run the town and do the farming and take care of the house. We’ve been given a sense of worth throughout the generations, and you don’t loose that strength.”
Riggs, a tall gray-haired and imposing figure, is a 13th generation Islander, the mother of five and daughter of author and poet Dionis Coffin Riggs and school principal and printmaker Sidney N. Riggs.
With a degree in geology, her own remarkable resumé — writing for the National Geographic Society and Smithsonian (she spent two months in Antarctica), working in public relations for the American Petroleum Institute, operating boat charters (she lived on a 44-foot houseboat for 12 years), running the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Boat Company, and being a rigger at Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard — prompts her visitor to comment with awe about her adventures.
“Well, I’m the only person who’s been going through my life, so to me it seems perfectly ordinary,” the 74-year-old Riggs simply says, responding with a laugh.
After enrolling six years ago in the Master of Fine Arts creative writing program at Vermont College, Riggs found yet another calling. She has become a successful mystery writer with five books to her credit, and a sixth set for publication [in 2006].
All her mysteries take place on the Vineyard, and all draw from local scenes and fictionalized composites of Island characters. She knows them all well, having been a two-time candidate for West Tisbury selectman (“No, I don’t think I’ll do that again”), a commissioner on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, a member of what is now the Martha’s Vineyard Arts Council, and an active Island voice in both politics and human rights causes.
Her mysteries are all solved by protagonist detective Victoria Trumbull — “a 92 year-old who thinks of herself as being 20” — a character closely patterned after her own mother, Dionis, “an extraordinary woman,” who lived to the age of 99. Riggs laughs as she recalls her mother at 98, announcing she was going to Windemere — “to read to the elderly.”
Riggs plans to write a total of 20 books, “and then I’ll retire.” And she already has a list of the titles. All are named after plants or flowers which serve as clues to the murders: Blood Root will focus on a dentist; Indian Pipes will involve a casino built by the Wampanoags at Gay Head; and Bleeding Heart will tell of intrigue at the Island hospital. Her fifth mystery, Paperwhite Narcissus, released this summer, centers around a fictional Island newspaper and its egotistical editor.
So while leading two writers’ groups (one at the Howes House and another in her home), and while hosting her new television show, On Island Writing, (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. on MVTV), she completes her seventh mystery.
“What I’m writing now is called Shooting Star, I thought why don’t I have it based in a community theater? Why would people be murdering each other in a community theater? Possibly because a new artistic director wants to change it into an equity theater? That would be cause for murder.” She flashes a whimsical smile. “And I thought, that be be nice.”
– Cynthia Riggs, Her Mystery Revealed by Cynthia K. Wolfson, is reprinted with permission from Vineyard Style .