Harbour Grace storyteller about to roll out another one

By Craig Westcott \ May 18, 2023

During the latter years of his long teaching career, Patrick J. Collins decided to take up a sideline— a tour boat company in his hometown of Harbour Grace that he started with his brother-in-law and neighbour.

“It was a heritage tour,” said Collins. “Coming out of Harbour Grace in a boat, you can point out all the sights to talk about – the Affray, the old churches, the airfield can be seen, the old Kyle is there. When I had this boat, I researched information and stories about those things and people were intrigued on the boat to hear these stories. So, when we sold the boat and I retired, I said, I wonder if anybody would be interested in reading about that? That’s what spurred me on really and I never looked back.”

Collins will release his 13th book this summer. While he has written across a broad array of genres, this one will be another mystery and romance novel, his fourth, and laid again over the bones of true events that happened in his town years ago.

His last one, Murder at Lovers Leap, featured the reappearance of Harbour Grace policeman Frank Fallon, a dogged, mature, independent-minded constabulary officer wrestling with alcoholism, whose life stumbles into turmoil after his long-time fiancé and mystery solving partner leaves him because of his drinking.

“He was a fictional character I came up with based on my experiences here in Harbour Grace over the years and people I know and he’s a composite of different people,” said Collins. 

The germ of the story was based on a true event that happened in Port de Grave about a century ago.

Collins had written a good number of books before finally turning his mind to a whodunit. The first one, Murder at Mosquito Cove, was based on a true story that happened in neighbouring Bristol’s Hope.

“It really caught on with the readership,” Collins said of that first mystery.

So, when Collins switched publishers some years ago, he decided to begin the new relationship with another mystery.

“And of course, Harbour Grace the town is full of mysteries, because it was a metropolis here one time,” Collins said. “Particularly in the late 1800s, and the early 1900s it was the second largest city in the country (of Newfoundland). I decided to combine stories I’d heard from that area. I find it intriguing, actually. There’s a great market there for murder mysteries, I think. And I like writing period-based books.”

It takes Collins about a year to write a novel, but most of that time is spent on research. He particularly likes wading through old newspaper stories in the archives. “It gives me a great sense of understanding, and once I get an understanding of the period, if I can find something that fits that particular period, then it makes the writing come alive for me,” he explained.

The next book, River Murder, is due for release in late August. It’s set in the months after the infamous Harbour Grace Affray. That’s the riot that happened on Boxing Day 1883 in which five people were killed and 17 injured when a hundred or so Roman Catholics from Riverhead barred the road to more than 400 members of the Loyal Orange Lodge who were parading through town.

“I went back and read all the trials and the ministerial inquiries and looked at the characters and said, ‘Okay, this makes sense, this could happen,’” Collins said of the mystery he dreamed up. “It’s the research around that period that kind of drives my writing.”

This one is also a murder mystery and romance. But it features a different policeman than Fallon.

Unlike writers who claw their way blindly towards a conclusion as they write, Collins knows the who, what and why of the culprit and crime before he even starts.

“Oftentimes I write the ending (first),” he said. “I know the ending, because I know the beginning, and getting to the ending is intriguing because you can branch out with two or three different sub-plots when you know where you are going. You haven’t got to be always thinking, ‘How am I going to end this book?’ I know the ending and to reach that ending makes a better journey for me… It’s kind of like having the picture of the jigsaw puzzle in front of you when you are putting the pieces in. When you have the picture in front of you, it’s a lot easier.”

Surprisingly, Collins is not a big reader of traditional mysteries, but he does like local ones. He prefers to read biographies and true stories about tragedies.

River Murder picks up after the real events of the Boxing Day violence. Collins invents a son for one of the men, Patrick Callaghan, 56, who was shot and killed during the rioting. 

“A policeman by the name of Edward Doyle was charged with the murder. He was the head constable,” Collins said. “There was a three or four month ministerial inquiry to determine if it should go to the Supreme Court. At the same time, there were 19 men charged with the murder of another gentleman, a Protestant. The two ministerial inquiries happened at the same time under the same judge, and most of the same characters were brought in to testify at both trials. So as the winter went on, you can imagine what the town was feeling with these two things happening. There came a point in May when Judge Bennett released the policeman for the murder of Patrick Callahan. But then he went and arrested 19 men from the same community and sent them to trial in St. John’s. You can imagine what the uproar was in Riverhead. So, I took that setting four months later and had the (fictional) son of Patrick Callahan found dead. And it’s his murder that’s investigated in this book.”

Collins joked he would like to get away from writing books about Harbour Grace, but there is so much rich material.

There were the big fires of 1832, 1858 and 1944, the latter wiping out much of Water Street and destroying what was until then, the second biggest mercantile centre in the colony. Then there was the ups and downs of the seal fishery and the cod fishery, including a massive layoff of some 1,500 workers during the moratorium. The beautiful stone churches too have their tales, including true ones like the exhumation and reburial of bodies from the Roman Catholic Cathedral after the building was sold.

“And the airfield is still like it was back in 1927. It hasn’t changed a bit and what a jewel that is… All those stories are so interesting,” said Collins, who just can’t help being hooked on Harbour Grace and its history.

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