She was a mystery to me

A member of her writers’ group remembers when he first met Cynthia Riggs, who celebrated her 90th birthday last week.


I’m not sure I’d use the word “famous” to describe her then, or now for that matter, but she was to become much better-known than she had been, and millions would hear her story. She has certainly had more than her designated 15 minutes of fame.

I paid little attention to her name when I first heard it. I didn’t think it was relevant. I’d never heard of her before, and if I had, I’d forgotten. I’m terrible with names. Anyway, she was just a character in a story. It was the story, not her name, that was relevant to our conversation. I didn’t know the woman. My friend did, and she was telling me about the most recent developments in this woman’s life as we mucked out our horse stalls. She asked me what I thought. I always have an opinion; sometimes I wish I didn’t, but I always do.

I listened to the story about her. Things had progressed rather quickly, and she had already been tracked down by a man from her past. He was obviously obsessed with her, and after more than half a century, found her again. He was on the other side of the continent, thousands of miles away, but had managed to find her. I stopped mucking out my stall and leaned on my pitchfork. I needed to pay attention. This was serious. That would be the only thing I’d be right about.

I’ve studied the mind and worked for more than a dozen years with murderers and the criminally insane. I see little now in the minds of men as innocent coincidences. Call it cynical, call me jaded, I’m OK with it, but I will always remain cautious, always.

I didn’t know she was a killer, and an experienced one. She has gotten away with murder for years. She could be described as your garden-variety killer in many ways, but she’s a serial killer. Those facts are barely relevant to this story. I don’t mean to misdirect the reader, but the stories about those murders are a very small, although a significant, part of how I later came to be involved with this woman of mysteries.

She continues to practice her craft. I think a few murders have gone unsolved, unproven more accurately, everyone knows she’s the one responsible. Many more murders were solved, but she was never directly implicated. I was completely ignorant of her past back then, and knew little, if anything, about her present.

I certainly never expected to meet the woman, but I wanted to. I admit I was curious. The reasons had nothing to do with my past, nor her reputation really. It was about them, her and her stalker, their story. I was unable to stop thinking about it — the man who had tracked her down after 62 years, the way she told her story, their story, I was captivated.

At first I thought it was a bit scary, and shared my feelings with my friend, the one telling me the story while we cleaned our stalls. I thought the man was clearly obsessed. I believe I used the word “stalker.” I felt nothing innocent was afoot. I know it is always potentially dangerous if someone becomes the focus of another’s fixation.

I listened to the story some more as my friend told me about this woman’s cabal and their advice. They wanted to find this man. I was alarmed. They seemed way too glib — didn’t they see the potential danger? Let sleeping dogs lie, I say.

The man who had tracked her down had gone to great lengths to cleverly hide his own whereabouts, address unknown. Communication was impossible, except one way, his way. She had gotten away once. He’d found her, and he had plans for her.

She figured things out pretty quickly. She’s smart, has to be. It’s an occupational necessity, I guess. It wasn’t long before she found him and knew where he lived. The playing field was level now, or was it? He didn’t know about the murders. If he did, it didn’t seem to worry him. She invited him East, and he was going to come.

I knew nothing of her past, her work, or her life, absolutely nothing, but when I heard her tell her story onstage in front of a live audience in the Oak Bluffs Tabernacle, it seemed familiar. It took me some time, but I figured it out. I had heard pieces of her story before, while it was actually happening, from my friend while we were mucking stalls. As I listened to her speak onstage, I realized how very wrong I’d been. This man who had tracked her down was no stalker. He was in love with her, and they later were to marry.


I’d listened to her whole story, a love story, told with such candor, warmth, and humor, I had to meet this person. It is a rare someone who truly grows wiser and kinder with life. Cynthia Riggs is indeed that rare kind of person.

I was wrong again. Not about her, about her story. There is so much more to it. More than someone with my talents could do justice, but I will share the very small piece I am familiar with, the mystery writer.

I have called her a killer, your garden-variety killer in fact, because she has titled each of her murder mysteries after a different type of flora. I have called her a serial killer as well, because she has figuratively killed many people on the Island in her books. Unable to abide injustice even in her literary fiction, she is the alter ego of the nonagenarian detective Victoria Trumbull, who solves the murders. She brings the guilty to justice with a style that is as uniquely Martha’s Vineyard as is her own.

She starts with a victim. Art imitating life? In real life, it is often the case that the perpetrator of a murder is unknown until the crime is solved. Unlike in most fiction, her killers are also unknown, even to the writer herself. Life imitating art? Perhaps. A killer will materialize as the case evolves, and so as the reader progresses, he or she has the unparalleled chance to work alongside Victoria Trumbull with no more or less knowledge of the crime — both proceed with the investigation of a murder mystery on equal footing.

Only the victim is not just a victim but a proxy, albeit fictional. There is a strong resemblance to some of the Island’s less beloved characters, and like all victims, hers are not randomly chosen. The crime, method of death, every detail, even the murderer, are but tangents, merely window dressing for the opportunity to have justice done, real justice. The kind of justice that our primitive psyche screams out for, in which bullies, thieves, liars, and miscreants of all stripes are worthy of the death penalty. Not allowed in reality, but done and savored in fiction. The manner of death, descriptions of the recently departed, any tidbits of detail are the soul of the story, a metaphorical substitute providing the perfect emotional, cathartic fantasy. Reality is far less satisfying and far more infuriating, with its legal and social prohibitions on delivering righteous justice.

What kind of flesh-and-blood character could drive a kind woman to kill, even if only in fiction? There are, unfortunately for most of us, a seemingly endless supply of candidates. The good news for her readers is they can count on a very long career for Victoria Trumbull.

In life as in fiction, the perpetrator is often unknown when investigating a murder, and must be sought out. Sometimes the victim is unknown, and must also be identified. In real life, there is a killer for every victim. In the murder mystery collection of Cynthia Riggs, there is really but one killer, the same one, the author. The victims are fiction, but their characters are real enough.

So dear reader, I hope when you read her mysteries, if intuitive and familiar enough with the Island, you may guess their real identities and share in the pleasure of their demise.

Stephen Caliri is a member of the Wednesday Writers Group, facilitated by Cynthia Riggs. The group meets at Cleaveland House in West Tisbury.