“The Johnstown Girls” : a mystery novel with a Chatham connection


Photo Courtesy of Kathleen George

Very soon, local Pittsburgh mystery author, Kathleen George, will release a new novel, “The Johnstown Girls”. The book combines George’s mystery skills along with undertones of historical-fiction, and contains a special Chatham connection.

George, a theatre and writing professor at University of Pittsburgh, is known for her critically acclaimed novels such as “Taken”, “Fallen”, and “The Odds”, all part of her thrillers set in different areas of Pittsburgh.

The story focuses primarily on three characters: Ben, Nina, and Ellen. Ben and Nina, both journalists for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, return to Nina’s hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania to interview one hundred and three-year-old Ellen, one of the few survivors of the Johnstown flood of 1889.

Photo Courtesy of Kathleen George
Photo Courtesy of Kathleen George

The story takes an interesting turn when Ben and Nina find out that Ellen holds onto the belief that her twin sister, Mary, is still alive. While Ben simply finds it interesting, Nina becomes invested in trying to help Ellen find her missing sister.

The Chatham connection comes into play through the schools former name, Pennsylvania College for Women, which is referred to numerous times throughout the novel. Ellen was a student at the college. There is even the mention of the name change that occurred, “sometime in the fifties” as Ellen put it.

George also has a personal connection to Chatham. Not only does she, “love the setting”, she also says that she, “once directed “Sleuth” for a summer theatre there. And [she has] taught fiction in the MFA program several times.”

Kathleen George says that the inspiration to write the book came from “the feeling of fear that a family member is lost”–a theme that is prevalent in many of the conversations throughout the story.

According to George, “tons” of research went into making sure the novel was accurate. Not only did she have to make sure that the specifics of the flood of 1889 were accurate, she also had to do plenty of research to ensure that the details about twins, nursing, and memory were accurate.

While this research was extensive, George did include a disclaimer at the opening of the novel saying that the details of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball season of 1989 were altered to fit the storyline. She also stressed that the settings are all real, but the details are fictitious.

As for the novel, George does an amazing job of maintaining the focus and heart of the Johnstown mystery, while also including the complicated romantic interests of Ben and Nina, among other subplots.

“Johnstown” will be particularly interesting for those readers in the Pittsburgh area, who can expect colorful descriptions of such places as Kennywood, Homestead, and, of course, Johnstown. However, those readers outside of Pittsburgh or even Pennsylvania can look forward to the fascinating history lesson that George presents in such a creative new way.

Each character is developed and well-rounded, and increasingly complicated as the story unfolds. Similarly they all add to the intrigue, mystery, and excitement that is carried from beginning to end.

The novel is truly a triumph for George, as well as a source of interest for the Chatham University community. “The Johnstown Girls” will be available on April 1, 2014.