An Eichler Adds Zest to Mystery Novels

Camille Minichino, who writes 'Miniature Mysteries' as Margaret Grace, fell in love with the Eichlers of Castro Valley and set her novels in a fictional subdivision inspired by these homes. Photo by Dave Weinstein

If you’re a typical reader of novels about amateur sleuths, and your amateur sleuth lives in a suburban home, you can probably picture that home in your head pretty easily. But what if it’s an Eichler home and you’ve never seen an Eichler home?

Wouldn’t it be difficult to visualize the scene?

No, says Camille Minichino, who writes a series of mystery novels built around an amateur detective who lives in an Eichler home. She understands the importance of creating realistic settings for each scene in her books, and says she can evoke the look and feeling of an Eichler home, even for readers who have never heard the term 'mid-century modern.'

“That’s my job,” says Camille, a physicist by trade, who writes the 'Miniature Mysteries' series under the pen name Margaret Grace.

“You always have to make the reader aware of where she is,” Camille adds.

Minichino, who’s been writing mystery novels for 20 years and lives in a more traditionally styled home in the East Bay community of Castro Valley, describes why she set the series in an Eichler home.

The author and her mysteries. Courtesy of Camille Minichino

“I was starting a new mystery series featuring a character who builds doll houses, as I do. I wanted the whole thing to tie naturally together. I thought the best place to live would be an Eichler, not a typical tract home.”

Camille adds that the husband of the lead character, Geraldine Porter, was an architect. “This is what he wanted to live in, as an architect.”

A friend of Camille’s had recently moved into an Eichler in the Greenridge subdivision in Castro Valley.

“I found the house fascinating, and it gave me the idea of having an architect husband and living in that neighborhood -- a good match for the theme of dollhouses and miniatures.”

 “I would use her floor plan as a model,” she decided, even reproducing it in the first novel of the series, ‘Murder in Miniature.’ Some of the novels are published by Meredith Phillips, who recently constructed Eichler-like miniature rooms.

“You'd think the world of shoe-box-size scenes and mini-Victorians would be trouble free,” Camille says, “but when murders hit her small California town, [lead character] Gerry and her preteen granddaughter, Maddie, are on the case, sniffing out clues and dealing justice.”

Besides the Eichler connection, each novel is tied to the world of miniatures, a hobby shared by Camille with her lead character, Gerry.

Gerry and Maddie return often to the Eichler.

Camille works surrounded by material about Eichler, including the home plan for the house where her amateur detective lives. Courtesy of Camille Minichino

“Whenever she’s home, you know it’s an Eichler,” Camille says. “The lead character, she loves the atrium. She’s always in the atrium to rest and think about things.”

“She actually takes down a criminal in the kitchen, so you as a reader have to be able to picture the kitchen.”

Here’s a passage from 'Murder in Miniature,' introducing the home:

“My home -- with four bedrooms, kitchen and ample living space built around a large atrium-- was a source of great pleasure for me. Ken and I had bought our Eichler in the mid-seventies. I'd recently received a letter from the Department of the Interior informing me that our Lincoln Point Eichler neighborhood, about forty miles south of San Francisco, had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Impressive as that was for all of us property owners, for me the best feature was unlocking my front door and entering a beautiful natural setting. I never tired of looking at the magnificent Jade tree and a border of cyclamen that Ken and I had planted in the atrium.”

Camille, who also teaches creative writing at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, urges would-be writers to evoke settings where the action occurs. So she often describes the neighborhood, the color of the walls, the color of the exterior trim.

She’s done lots of reading about Eichler, and has photos of Eichler homes posted where she writes, to better evoke the real setting.

The author displays her wares at a book signing and book event. Courtesy of Camille Minichino

The first Miniature Mystery came out in 2008. The ninth was published last September. “Unlike my other series, where I sometime move my characters out to different environments, I only did that once in this one. In one book she goes to New York,” Camille says.

Camille worked for years as a physicist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Her first mystery series was based on science, not dollhouses.

“My first books were based on the Periodic Table, the Hydrogen Murder, Helium Murder, and so on. I’m now working on Magnesium,” she says.

“My original goal was to make science interesting to people who wouldn’t ordinarily read science books. People who think scientists are people who can’t tie their shoelaces.”

“I wanted to present a normal female scientist in literature, at least in genre literature.”

“When the publisher asked me for a second series,” Camille says, “I turned to my hobby.”

Camille says she does OK with the books, calling herself a “mid list” sort of writer. “To me, it doesn’t matter a lot because I had my career as a physicist. “I had a couple of big sales with Lithium and Beryllium,” she says. “That’s when I had an agent.” One of her publishers is Meredith Phillips, another Bay Area miniaturist.

Although Camille has never given a book talk in an Eichler home, many people who live in the homes read her books, and she sometimes meets them at book talks in bookshops and elsewhere. “They say they live in one, and they love the books.”

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