A woman in a red dress is lying dead on a red carpet in a small bed and breakfast hotel in Newport, R.I.
That’s the exciting beginning of Ridgefield resident Jean Cullander Krasno’s first foray into fiction, The Train to Skeleton Coast: A Tale of Murder and the Struggle for Freedom.
“It all started with a very powerful dream I had one night,” Krasno (who uses her maiden name Cullander as her pen name) said. “It was so poignant in my mind. I wanted to know who this person was and what happened to her. The whole story evolved from that and it became the first chapter of my book and I went on from there.”
The mystery centers around Maggie Grayson, a doctoral student at Yale University, who discovers the dead body of a dark-skinned South African woman and suddenly becomes entangled in international intrigue and a target of a rogue, secret intelligence agency of the South African white government in the period before apartheid was abolished.
“She’s a woman who is a graduate student yet somewhat naïve and very curious about the world. Everything is seen through her eyes,” Krasno said. “I used Yale because I know it so well. I’m an academic and have taught at Yale for more than 20 years.”
The victim in the story is a housekeeper at the Newport hotel and after Maggie reports the murder to the police, she learns the woman had been caring for an eight-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy from South West Africa (Namibia, after independence). Maggie is asked to take the young boy back to his family in South West Africa.
“As an academic who has done a lot of research on Namibia, and also been there myself many times doing research on its independence and the role the United Nations played on that, I wanted to set part of the story there,” the author said. “I had met a lot of the people and been to all these places, but in writing it up in an academic way, I never felt I could tell the story of the people. This is my vehicle to bring the people alive by having them tell their story to Maggie because she’s always asking questions.”
The setting for the story is 1989, which Krasno noted is vital for the story because of not only what was happening in Namibia, but due to all the historic events occurring around the world at the time.
“There was Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall came down, the revolution in El Salvador, and Namibia was gaining independence,” she said. “The story looks at Maggie’s struggle, tied into the different struggles around the world.”
As for the scenes in Newport, the author came up with the idea of using the quaint Rhode Island town after staying in a bed and breakfast there while attending a wedding.
“The majestic houses and their history inspired the backdrop for the story,” she said. “I thought the perfection, the grandeur, the docks, and impressive boats that represent expendable wealth would prove to be a graphic contrast to the story that was about to unfold.”
Krasno also visited Newport with her 8-year-old granddaughter to help get inside the head of the character in her book of the same age.
“She’s a very important character in the book because no one can figure out why this woman would have this 8-year-old white girl with her. Both of her parents were assassinated in Africa and part of the mystery is finding out who assassinated them,” she said. “My granddaughter walked through the town with me and gave me great ideas so I could get the character’s perspective.”
Although Krasno has been published academically numerous times over the years, this was her first attempt at fiction. The biggest difference, she noted, was learning how to write with dialogue.
“I wanted to tell this story more through conversation and dialogue rather than description. That was sometimes difficult how to figure out,” she said. “Before I knew it, the novel took on a life of its own and the characters I would be writing and how they would talk to one another and answer questions evolved.”
The book took about two years to write, mainly because Krasno was busy teaching at Yale and also at the City College of New York.
In addition to having a Ph.D. in international politics, Krasno also has a background in art; achieving a B.F.A. from the University of Illinois with a major in painting and an M.A. from Stanford University in art with an emphasis on painting and printmaking. So, when it was time to come up with the cover for her book, she decided to just do it herself.
“I drew the design because I had a vision of what I wanted the cover to be, so I figured I might as well do it and get it right,” she said. “I was very happy with the way it all turned out.”
When she completed the novel, she entered it into the international Eludia 2015 book award competition, and it was named a finalist. She’s already thinking about her next book, which she said would be based in Portugal and again follow the character of Maggie.
“I like her as a character and she’s a good vehicle to do another one with,” she said. “Her next adventure will be in Brazil. I lived there for a couple of years, I speak Portuguese and have been back there several times. There are lots of interesting stories to tell there.”
Krasno’s first book reading will take place at the Ridgefield Library on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m.; for information, visit ridgefieldlibrary.org. The Train to Skeleton Coast is available at Books on the Common in Ridgefield and online at mcnallyjackson.com.