Small Towns: Stockbridge MA

Sorry, this hangs crookedly at the Rockwell Museum

 Because we live an hour from the Berkshires, most visits are day trips. Recently, though, we purchased nighttime tickets for Winter Lights on the grounds of Naumkeag, an 1886 mansion built for ambassador Joseph Choate and family. That event was canceled due to rain, but since Emily and I booked an overnight stay on Expedia and it's easier to avoid death than cancel one of their reservations, we made our way to the Red Lion Inn. We ended up with a beautiful room that would have otherwise been a budget-breaker. (Still, never book a room through a third-party service; it's not worth the hassle!)


Main Street at night 

Prepping for the hols!

The Red Lion at night

 Stockbridge conjures two 20th century occurrences, Arlo Guthrie's 1965 littering arrest—immortalized on his 1967 album Alice's Restaurant­––and Norman Rockwell's painting “Home for Christmas,” also from 1967. Rockwell’s depiction is how even those who've never been to Stockbridge imagine it. They're not entirely wrong; shops change ownership, but Main Street looks remarkably similar to what it was back then. Alice's Restaurant (which was actually called The Back Room) still serves food as the Main Street Cafe, a breakfast/lunch nook, though Alice Brock left a half century ago.  


The irony of Guthrie's arrest by William Obenheim (“Officer Obie” in the song) is that it and Rockwell's painting, left two outdated impressions of Stockbridge, that it’s either a hippie enclave or a snowy Currier & Ives-like slice of nostalgia. Forget the counterculture or quaintness; Stockbridge exudes wealth.


History buffs know that Stockbridge, settled in 1734, was the first English settlement in the southern Berkshires. The Rev. John Sergeant forged a treaty with local Mohican peoples that was better than most of his day. They became so-called “praying Indians” and were Christianized at the local Mission House. It can still be visited today and does a decent job of treating Native history with dignity. Sergeant had a famous successor: the Rev. Jonathan Edwards.


  Stockbridge's pioneer, rural, and blue-collar character—there’s still a paper mill still just outside the village—transformed into a summer playground for well-heeled New Yorkers after railroads arrived in 1850. Today, Empire State license plates often outnumber those from Massachusetts. It makes sense; Albany is just 45 miles away and Boston is over 130 miles distant. It’s also easier to get there from New York City (145 miles distant) by public transportation than to Boston.



Inside the Red Lion pub




Naumkeag's famed tiered fountain

The Red Lion Inn, which began life as a tavern in 1773, exudes invented colonial charm and can (over-)charge Manhattan prices because of its New York connections. You could spend north of $400 a night for a room in a village of just 2,018 residents. Why? There are a surprising number of cultural opportunities in the immediate area: summer stock theatre, music at Tanglewood, yoga at Kripalu, and blossoming delights at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens. Plus, Stockbridge and neighboring Lenox are littered (Guthrie pun intended) with homes of American aristocracy. Andrew Carnegie summered in Stockbridge and the Choates' Naumkeag is a Stanford White-designed splendor. Artists thrived nearby; you can tour the Rockwell Museum and the studio and home of sculptor Daniel Chester French. Catholics flock to the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, families enjoy the chimes of the Children's Tower, and if you have the dosh, you can even treat your neuroses at the posh Austen Riggs psychiatric center.   


Not the Catholic shrine


Gumball fa la la!


Stockbridge has dump-out-your-wallet food offerings such as Michael's, Once Upon a Table, and the Lion's Den. We opted to head up to West Stockbridge for a more reasonable dinner tab at Amici, then enjoyed a glass of wine in the Red Lion's pub, which we polished off in two wing chairs by the fireplace in the lobby. Cheaper daytime food options include the Elm Street Market and Stockbridge Coffee, but don't miss the pastries at The Lost Lamb across the street from the Red Lion.


 We topped off our two-day getaway by visiting the Rockwell Museum and headed north to the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, both of which were free on our North America museum roaming pass. Despite the rain-out at Naumkeag, we enjoyed our excursion though I'm not sure we could afford too many village outings like this. Maybe we'll try something cheaper, like New York City!

Rob Weir



The Bullet That Missed, Another Zany Thursday Murder Club Book



By Richard Osman

Random House, 352 pages.





The Bullet That Missed is book three of the delightful Thursday Murder Club Mystery series. Anyone who loves British eccentricity at its quirky best will delight in any of them, though the first book and this one are stronger than book two.


To recap, the Thursday Murder Club meets in the old-age home of Cooper’s Chase. Its principal geezers are former MI6 agent Elizabeth Best, her proper-goes-cockeyed friend Joyce Meadowcroft, former union tough guy Ron Ritchie, and gentle retired psychologist Ibrahim Arif. They like to reexamine old murder cases and are so successful that local cops Chris Hudson and Donna DeFreitas have become fans and give aid when they can get away with it. Bogdan Jankowski, an immigrant with a shadowy past, is another conspirator. He is having a torrid affair with Donna. Ron, on the other hand, is enjoying carnal relations with Pauline, a makeup artist. Everyone, it seems, has a hidden secret or two.


This time they take on the disappearance and presumed murder of TV personality Bethany Waites, chosen partly because Joyce has a girl crush on Bethany’s former co-anchor, Mike Waghorn whom she religiously watches. His show, South East Tonight, might remind locals of light fare daytime human interest shows around Western Massachusetts. Joyce will get to know Mike, but let’s just say they are not a romantic match.


People get killed in this series, but relationships and the writing are so offbeat that sanguinary activity falls into the category of black comedy. For example, their investigations send Ibrahim to visit the deeply immoral and dangerous Connie Johnson (from book two) and Ibrahim makes this observation: “He likes Connie; and she likes him. Although one has to be careful: she is a ruthless killer and, without wishing to be judgmental about it, that is fairly bad.” Yes indeed. She’s running drugs, contraband, and hits from her jail cell and is given privileges from prison personnel for whom she scores cheap electronics and other such favors.


Dangerous silliness shows elsewhere. There is Henrik, an inept Swedish thug who tries to get Elizabeth to kill a former Russian spy named Viktor. That gives her pause as Viktor was once one of her lovers, but what can she do? Henrik has tracked everyone and threatens to kill Joyce if Elizabeth doesn’t off Viktor. There is Andrew Everson, the chief constable of Kent, who is more productive in writing crime novels than catching transgressors. Bethany’s on-the-air replacement Fiona Clemence seems to be disagreeable, but does that mean she had a role in Bethany’s disappearance?


Osman resorts to all manner of devices to spin his yarn such as anagrams, priceless old books, missing money from an old heist, and SIM cards. But Elizabeth keeps coming back to the lack of a body and attempts to identify what good guys and bad guys alike have overlooked. As we learned from the first two books, although Elizabeth is fearless and can be ruthless, some of her instincts retired when she did. She and her Cooper’s Chase peers are, after all, in their 70s. Their specialty is getting criminals to misjudge them.  


Will the Murder Club solve Bethany’s disappearance? Of course, but the fun lies in the twisted paths taken to get there, not the gory details. I roared at parts of this book as if I were watching a Monty Python sketch. Know anyone who likes off-kilter mysteries and loves British foibles and aberrations? Stick this one on your holiday list and be ready to field telephone calls from the recipient who wants to read to you their favorite zany quotes. Best to read it yourself first, so you can head them off at the pass. Or at least exchange notes.


Rob Weir


Louise Penny Rights the Ship in A World of Curiosities




By Louise Penny

Minotaur/St. Martin’s, 380 pages.





Louise Penny’s previous two Armand Gamache mysteries were mildly disappointing, which makes A World of Curiosities a redemptive work. The title references how people in earlier times who traveled very little learned about the world beyond their immediate area. One way was to commission artists to paint canvases crammed with exotica collected or described by travelers. One such work, The Paston Treasure, was rendered by an unknown Dutch artist for a 17th century British aristocratic family. It plays a major role in A World of Curiosities


The Paston Treaure


Penny also builds a narrative involving two infamous events from the 20th century, two Québec City bridge collapses (1907, 1916) that killed 88 people and the 1989 Montréal Massacre, which saw a male gunmen storm the École Polytechnique, order male students to leave, and systematically shot female students, killing 14 and wounding 13.* In the novel, Armand Gamache is a low-level cop on the team that responds to the Polytechnique slaughter. Still another historical event involves Anne Lamarche (a real person) accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. Penny turns her into a legend as the founder of Gamache’s village of Three Pines.   


The book opens with a chase before segueing to how Gamache rescued his future son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir from the basement of the Sûreté du Québec and brought the surly and disrespectful young man onto his team. Penny fans know that Gamache has a habit of taking on hard-luck cases, but is he always right?


The bulk of the story involves Myrna Landers’ niece, Harriet, who is about to graduate from the Polytechnique, and an old Gamache case involving the murder of a prostitute and the discovery that she had pimped her own children, Fiona and Sam Arsenault. Gamache aided Fiona later in life, but there’s something about Sam that makes him smell a sociopath. Trouble begins when Myrna contemplates selling her bookstore and moving away because the shop’s living quarters are too small for her, partner Billy Williams, and Harriet. Imagine everyone’s surprise when a view from the church steeple suggests there is a hidden room below the roof line. They are even more surprised when the wall is breached and the room is filled with things placed there a long time ago, including a copy of The Paston Treasure.


It's more sinister than that; there is strange writing on the painting and figures appear to be victims of serial killer John Fleming. (Penny fans will recognize Fleming as her equivalent to Conan Doyle’s brilliant-but-psychopathic Professor Moriarty.) How is that possible if the room has been sealed for over a century and Fleming is in maximum security prison? Marie-Reine Gamache is dispatched to England to examine the original Treasure for possible clues while Gamache and his team simultaneously investigate the local mystery and a recent murder. The agnostic Gamache is so perplexed that he seeks solace from the new local minister, the Rev. Robert Mongeau. All of the regular Three Pines crew make appearances–Clara, Gabri, Olivier, Ruth, and Rosa the duck–but this book largely focuses on the extended Gamache family and on Myrna. There are also appearances from previous Gamache rescue projects and proteges such as Amelia Choquet and Isabelle Lacoste.


Lots of things factor into the plot beside the painting: self-doubt, an old letter delivered to Billy intended for his ancestors, a book of magic, running, adolescent lust, a rising stack of bodies, and a resolution that is clock-beating on several levels. Much of the novel will make your heart pound and others will make your skin crawl. Some Penny fans have complained that recent books are too dark. That depends, I suppose, whether you want a soap opera or a murder mystery. After all, homicide tales require that someone has to meet with an unpleasant end.


A more legitimate quibble is that Penny is recycling. She repeats phrases (over-) used in previous books like references to Gamache’s “kind” eyes and shopworn jokes about Rosa the duck and Gamache’s ugly rescue dog. How many times now have we heard the four statements Gamache thinks every investigator should use: I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help. This is Penny’s 18th Armand Gamache mystery, so there is no need for redundancy; new readers who don’t go back to square one will be lost anyhow. Still, A World of Curiosities is cause for hope that Penny has righted the ship.


Rob Weir



* Unlike unspeakable acts in the United States such as Sandy Hook and Uvalde, Canada responded with strict gun control laws instead of BS pop psychology.