Jane Langton, who set her mystery novels in Concord and beyond, dies at 95
Some of Jane Langton’s mystery novel titles left no doubt about the places and writers she loved. Readers who thought Nantucket wasn’t as sunny as it seems could delve into “Dark Nantucket Noon.” Those who called Concord home might pick “The Transcendental Murder.”
She even believed that Henry David Thoreau had given her own house in Lincoln a shout-out in the opening of his book “Walden,” which includes the passage: “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor …”
“My house was Jacob Baker’s house in Thoreau’s day, and it’s just a mile as the crow flies from here to his cove on Walden Pond,” she told the Globe in 2001. “Of course, Jonas Potter’s house was also a mile away in the other direction, but I like to think Henry meant us.”
A story’s setting was a key decision for Ms. Langton, who was 95 when she died on Dec. 22 of complications from a respiratory condition.
“I choose a place that’s just vibrating with interest,” she said while discussing where each of her plots took root, whether it was in Concord’s dump or in Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom. A gifted artist, Ms. Langton also illustrated most of her books with pen-and-ink drawings.
“For me, the most fun is in making drawings of the real places where my fictional events happen,” she said.
And her fictional events always seemed to happen in significant places.
“ ‘The Transcendental Murder’ is a hymn to Concord, its history, its houses, its hallowed ground, its people and patriots, and its ghosts (Emerson and Thoreau),” Globe reviewer Andrew Coburn wrote in 1975.
Her mystery “Dark Nantucket Noon,” Coburn added, “is a lullaby to the island, and an evil eye to greedy land-grabbers, real estate agents, and a crass minority of natives who would allow the splendor to be spoiled.”
“A novel grows out of a sense of place,” Ms. Langton told the Globe in 1995 as she sat in her kitchen. “A story might have some pompous theme but, really, its meaning must come from an organic relationship with its setting.”
Ms. Langton also wrote children’s books. “The Fledgling” was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1981 and was part of her “Hall Family Chronicles” series. She also has received a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Her popular series of mysteries featuring the sleuth Homer Kelly, a Harvard University professor, included “Emily Dickinson Is Dead,” a nominee for a Mystery Writers Edgar Award.
“Jane has an interesting audience for a mystery writer,” Kate Mattes, who formerly ran the much-loved and now-closed Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, told the Globe in 1995.
“Large numbers of her audience do not consider themselves mystery readers, but enjoy her because they want to learn something from their reading,” Mattes said. “If you’re really looking to experience a place and ponder the uniqueness of it, then Jane Langton is the person to read.”
The second of three children, Jane Gillson was born in 1922 and spent her early years in Belmont, until her family moved to Holly Oak, Del., when her father, Joseph Lincoln Gillson, went to work as a geologist for DuPont Co.
Though Ms. Langton grew up during the Great Depression, she recalled in a Globe interview, her mother, Grace Brown, “was thrifty,” and as a result “we didn’t feel constricted.”
“I loved to draw and thought possibly I would be an illustrator when I grew up,” she said in the 1995 interview. Then a biography of Marie Curie prompted her to pursue science.
Ms. Langton started out at Wellesley College and transferred to the University of Michigan at the urging of her parents, who worried that she wouldn’t meet enough men at a women’s school, said her son David of Brooklyn, N.Y.
At Michigan, she initially studied astronomy and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. She also met William Langton when they were lab partners in an optics class. They married in 1944.
He was a scientist and political activist who helped design optical equipment, worked on alternative energy sources, and finished his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. Mr. Langton was 81 when he died in 1997.
Ms. Langton graduated with two master’s degrees in art history — the first from Michigan and the second from Radcliffe College, after she and her husband had moved to Massachusetts. In addition, she studied at the Museum School in the late 1950s.
Her writing career was inspired in part by raising her three sons. “I read the most wonderful books to my children, and I thought I would love to write and illustrate one,” she said in 1995.
Ms. Langton’s illustrated her first book, “The Majesty of Grace,” which drew from her own life during the Great Depression and was published in 1961.
Early on, she began switching back and forth between her Hall Family series for young readers and her Homer Kelly mysteries. Ms. Langton published more than 30 books in all.
“She just kept at it,” David said. “She was typing, typing, typing — all the time.”
Ms. Langton also did extensive research for her books — writing “The Dante Game” prompted her to learn Italian. “I think she wrote in order to allow herself to continue studying,” David said. “She loved to dive into a subject and know all about it and become an expert.”
He added that his mother “was fun to talk to because she knew so much. She would remember something from some book she’d read years ago, and she had a quote she had memorized. That happened all the time. She was always putting little gems into our conversations.”
In her later decades, Ms. Langton also made a point of drawing attention to her age, one interviewer noted 22 years ago, when she was 73. “My idea is, anyone can be young and beautiful,” she said in 1997, “but we can’t all be wrinkled and creative.”
A service will be announced for Ms. Langton, who in addition to David leaves her two other sons, Christopher of Sausalito, Calif., and Andrew of Venice, Calif.; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Each of Ms. Langton’s books went through several rewrites. “By the third draft, there’s some sensible shape,” she said in 2001. “By the fifth, I’m really shining it up.”
Along with her published works, Ms. Langton left behind hundreds of notebooks she had filled with her thoughts.
“She always wanted to be focusing down on something, right in front of her, working,” David said.
From those verbal sketches emerged her many mysteries and children’s books, some of which had touches of magical realism, such as a child who could fly in the skies of Concord and Lincoln.
And though Ms. Langton’s books also featured far-away locales such as England and Italy, she often returned in her writing to places close at hand, for which research was as easy as a casual conversation.
“I love the fact that there are so many people to talk to and to get to know,” she said in 1995. “Behind every bush there’s someone you enjoy. I think that must not be true in other parts of the country. I couldn’t ever leave.”