Provincetown sleuth: Local author gains national attention

Steve Desroches

A televangelist is found dead on Herring Cove Beach wearing a multi-colored muumuu and high heels and a Provincetown detective who gets queasy at the sight of blood is not so hot on the case. 

In a town that is stranger than fiction this tale may sound vaguely familiar, like it actually happened, but it is the premise for author Jon Loomis’ fun and campy Provincetown-based mystery “High Season.” 

The poet’s brilliant first crack at fiction introduces us to Frank Coffin, a former 

Baltimore homicide detective who returned to his native Provincetown after starting to have panic attacks at crime scenes in tough and gritty Baltimore. The return home was just what Coffin needed, as his new beat’s most sensational crimes are limited to “break-ins, bicycle thefts and domestic disputes.” 

After almost a decade on the job in freaky and funky Provincetown in walks Melinda Merkin, wife of homophobic, fire-and-brimstone televangelist Ron Merkin, to report her husband missing. But there’s a secret, the good Reverend has a penchant for wearing women’s clothing. Shortly thereafter, Merkin, clad in over-the-top drag, is found dead, strangled with a taffeta scarf. 

Coffin and his partner, tough talking lesbian Officer Lola Winters, enlist the help of townies to help solve the crime. But after interviewing fishermen, drag queens and the eccentrics that stroll up and down Commercial Street, Coffin realizes that the Merkin case is not an isolated incident. There is a murderer loose in the town and it’s up to Coffin to find the killer before he strikes again. 

Meanwhile, Coffin’s girlfriend believes she has a stalker, his mother is the Alzheimer’s ridden loudmouthed bully of the town’s nursing home and the townspeople are all busy playing armchair detectives in a town where gossip is a blood sport. 

Loomis spent a couple of years in Provincetown as a poetry fellow at the prestigious Fine Arts Work Center. Though now lives in Wisconsin, where he is a poetry fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Loomis accurately captures the lovably twisted character of Provincetown. If you’ve never visited Provincetown, you’ll love this story for its clever twists and excellent writing. If you live in or spend a lot of time in Provincetown, you’ll chuckle as Loomis reveals some of the town’s worst kept secrets. 

For instance, though not mentioned by name it’s obvious that the Merkins are in Provincetown for Fantasia Fair, the annual October festival where cross dressers come to celebrate. The locals lovingly call the cross dressers “tall ships” because as the mostly straight men unsteadily walk down Commercial Street in high heels they sway like tall ships in the harbor. Unlike drag queens, “tall ships” shy away from the glamour and settle more on suburban practicality in their dress. Through Coffin, Loomis translates what many locals say in private. 

“Drag queens he could understand, sort of; there was something tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing, all that glitter and flash, a kind of burlesque-on/homage-to the whole idea of glamour in all its blowzy, tittering goofiness. The straight cross-dressers were harder to figure out – the just plain transvestites everyone in town called tall ships. The tall ships tended to be large men who strode up and down Commercial Street in plus-sized tweed skirts, support hose, and pumpkin-colored lipstick; craggy faced and lonely-looking men with dispirited wigs and five o’clock shadows poking through pancake makeup. Sometimes they had their wives, even their kids in tow. They reminded Coffin of his Aunt Connie after she’d been through several rounds of chemotherapy.” 

The dark comedic mystery is a veritable road map of real Provincetown institutions, both visible and hidden, though in many cases given fake names, much like a literary witness protection program. Coffin and Winters sling back coffee at the Tip Top Diner, which is obviously Tips for Tops’n, a favorite townie breakfast place in town. Billy’s Oyster Shack sounds like a mix between Clem and Ursie’s and the Governor Bradford bar; and Dawn Vermillion, a fictional drag queen who sees all and knows all, resembles popular hometown drag star Pearlene Dubois. 

Since its publication at the end of September, “High Season” has been creating buzz, likely to get louder now that the New York Times Book Review named it as an editor’s choice. 

Loomis, who previously published two books of poetry “Vanitas Motel” and “The Pleasure Principal,” is working on two new books – a mystery titled “Mating Season” and a memoir called “King of Hearts.” His next mystery is set to come out in January 2008. 

“High Season” is much like Provincetown, a gleeful mélange of joyous contradictions and peculiar characters in a community with a dark underbelly and glittery joie de vivre.

- Cape Codder