Those familiar with the Finger Lakes of upstate New York will recognize that fictional Tompkins Falls is a blend of three towns: Seneca Falls, Geneva, and Canandaigua. Seneca Falls is the author’s hometown, the Birthplace of Women’s Rights, and the inspiration for the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.
Setting aside the history and geography lessons, Tompkins Falls, the setting for The Penningtons Investigate, is a small city of 20,000 residents and about 1,000 college students. Located just south of the New York State Thruway, the city is on Routes 5 & 20, midway between Geneva and Canandaigua. Flowing through the city is the Barge Canal. Before the canal swallowed it, the impressive falls of the Tompkins River supplied power to textile mills and manufacturing. The mills and factories have closed.
The city is at the north end of Chestnut Lake, named in honor of the magnificent American Chestnut tree that once graced its shores. The lake is twenty miles long and two miles wide at its widest point. It is unique among the Finger Lakes for the cluster of small, rounded islands, which locals call “the gumdrops,” in the northeast corner of the lake. Like most of the Finger Lakes, the hills surrounding Chestnut Lake are covered with farms, fields, and vineyards. Tourism is important to the economy, and wine tasting is a popular outing.
Two of the founding families of Tompkins Falls were the Cushmans (financiers) and the Tompkins (industrialists). Until the millennium, neither of the two remaining scions of the founding families, Joel Tompkins Cushman or his uncle Justin Cushman, lived in Tompkins Falls. Joel returned in his twenties and remade his elegant family home into the Manse Inn and Spa, adding function rooms for weddings and events and the Manse Grill, especially distinguished for locally sourced cuisine. Joel then established a fund for converting the abandoned mills and warehouses along River Street into multiple-use properties.
The city’s major employer is Tompkins College, which was founded by the Tompkins family in 1874 to educate managers of industry and their secretaries. Over the decades, the college evolved into a liberal arts institution with excellence in business and management. Following WWII when the GI Bill provided tuition dollars and, subsequently, the Baby Boom supplied unprecedented numbers of students, Tompkins College grew. With prosperity, the college degenerated into a hotbed of intrigue, fueled by greed.
Joel Tompkins Cushman’s return to the Board of Trustees in 2003 was the beginning of a turnaround for the college. Joel countered the moral decline with a college-wide purge that wiped out nearly half its employees and shut down embezzlement, graft, and other abuses. Joel then asked his wealthy uncle, Justin Cushman, to return to Tompkins Falls and lead the college forward as an institution of integrity serving the new millennium. Aware that, if the college were to fail, the economy of Tompkins Falls would nosedive, Justin agreed and assumed the role of president of the college.
The murder mysteries featured in The Penningtons Investigate incorporate the continuing effort by Joel and Justin Cushman to revitalize Tompkins College and their hometown of Tompkins Falls, the beautiful city on lovely Chestnut Lake. Featured as sleuths in the Tompkins Falls Mysteries are Kyle and Lyssa Pennington. Lyssa, an economics professor at the college, is Joel’s sister-in-law, while Kyle, a native of Cornwall, is Justin Cushman’s closest friend.
Those interested in additional backstory of the characters and the college may enjoy the four Lakeside Porches romance novels. Written under the pen name Katie O’Boyle, the books were released by Soul Mate Publishing between 2012 and 2015.