Delicious murder mystery

‘A Bitter Feast’ serves up delectable meals along with its charming detecting duo

You will be forgiven if your mouth waters uncontrollably while reading Deborah Crombie’s latest entry in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery series, A Bitter Feast (HarperCollins, 2019). The action is set in the picturesque Cotswolds and centers around a pub in the village of Lower Slaughter, which boasts a world-class chef serving up the ultimate pub food. Why such a talent is toiling in obscurity after having shone at a Michelin-starred London eatery is just one of the mysteries that is eventually unraveled here. Others are more momentous, involving multiple suspicious deaths and the private lives of various village denizens.

Crombie often weaves together storylines from the past and present in her mysteries, and A Bitter Feast is no exception. At regular intervals we jump back to chef Viv Holland’s time in London, learning how her culinary career began and why she left it behind. Characters from that past play key roles in the present, drawing the two storylines together in the end. Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Kincaid and Detective Inspector James find their holiday weekend turned into a busman’s holiday almost at the off, when Duncan is involved in a serious automobile crash that leaves two people dead. His own injuries keep him from fully asserting himself in the subsequent investigations, but fortunately the local constabulary proves to be both up to the task and not afraid to accept help from Scotland Yard when it’s offered. It’s a refreshing change from the usual obstructionism that local law enforcement tends to exhibit in run-of-the-mill murder mysteries.

Devoted fans of the series will be delighted that even though Gemma and Duncan have ventured out of London and away from their Metropolitan Police home base, many of the series’ most prominent secondary characters are along for the ride. Of course the couple’s children are along, and it’s a relief to find that Duncan’s son Kit is starting to outgrow his overly sensitive teenage persona and becoming a more well-rounded character in his own right. But we also get more-than-cameo appearances from Gemma’s detective sergeant, Melody Talbot, and Duncan’s own DS, Doug Cullen, as the quartet are spending the weekend at the country home of Melody’s posh parents.

And then there’s the food. Oh my, the food! Crombie does a fine job of illustrating the chaos of a working commercial kitchen, and an even better job of describing the output of that process in delectable ways. I wasn’t very far into reading before I was tempted to book the next flight to the Cotswolds. Only the knowledge (revealed in Crombie’s author’s note) that the pub and chef are fictional kept me curled up in my reading chair until the end.

For me, the appeal of Crombie’s work is tilted more heavily toward the compelling characters and world that she has created, though there’s nothing wrong with her plotting. I love both Duncan and Gemma, and I enjoy spending time with them, their blended family, and their friends. It was smart of Crombie to give a fresh feel to the series by moving the action outside of London, while retaining the core character set that drives much of the reader’s interest. And as always, even as a mystery is solved, the characters’ lives continue to grow and develop. This time around, I’m eager to read the next entry to find out how Melody’s personal dilemma resolves itself.

If you’re already a fan of Duncan and Gemma et al., you don’t need me to tell you this is worth your time. If you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them yet, I would suggest starting with the first in the series, A Share in Death, and working your way forward. Some series don’t need to be read in order, but this one is infinitely more rewarding if you experience the characters’ growth and change along the way.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

A watery way of life

‘A Chesapeake Requiem’ takes the reader inside the endangered world of Tangier Island

There’s a romance that lingers around certain places in America. Usually they are places that to outside observers have been “left behind” by modernity. Those of us frantically trying to keep up with the blistering pace of technology fool ourselves into thinking that the “good old days” represent some platonic ideal of how life should be lived. Reality, of course, looks different when viewed from inside the bubble,

Such is the case with Tangier Island, a seemingly idyllic throwback to a simpler time when men supported their families by working the land (or in this case, water), when everyone in a small town knew everyone else, when the attractions of nature, board games, and books outweighed the allure of instant messaging, video games, and social media. Every summer, tourists flock to this Chesapeake Bay island (only reachable by ferry, and navigable on land via bicycle or golf cart) to briefly gawk at people whom time has seemingly passed by.

The subtitle of Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island (Harper Collins, 2018) offers the reader a clue that not all is what it seems, and as the pages turn the dilemma faced by the people of Tangier becomes more and more clear: Rising waters in the Chesapeake (caused by a number of factors including coastal erosion and climate change) have swallowed two-thirds of Tangier’s land mass in the past two centuries. The best-case scenario, if no man-made intervention is made, is that the island will be uninhabitable within 50 years. The math is not promising: The current population is fewer than 500 people. The cost of shoring up the island is measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

Swift, a longtime journalist in Virginia, who had visited Tangier earlier this millennium while reporting a story, felt compelled to return in 2015 and chronicle life on the island in depth. By living for a full year on the island, he was able to earn the trust of the islanders, who opened their lives to him in really moving ways. Swift shares with the reader not only the scientific and political ramifications of the island’s disappearing land mass, but the essential humanity of the people whose families have lived and worked on the island for generations. We learn about the island’s past glories as a preeminent source of the coveted blue crab, its difficult present as the watery bounty in the Bay and the land under their feet both become ever more scarce, and its grim future as its young people graduate from high school and most of them move off-island, never to return.

Whenever a reporter embeds themselves into a place there can be a temptation to over-identify with your subject matter, resulting in journalism that fails to cast an objective eye on the situation. Happily, that’s not the case with Swift. While it’s clear that he feels affection and respect for the people he meets and lives among on Tangier, he doesn’t shy away from detailing their shortcomings. In particular, the near-universal refusal to believe that climate change is real, let alone playing a role in their island’s peril, is frustrating to read about, as is their hostility to the environmentalists who want to help save the island but who are mistrusted as also wanting to regulate the fisheries that support the islanders. I felt the same about the people’s baffling passivity in the face of their problems; at one point, several of the old watermen are sitting around talking about a meeting on the mainland where decisions will be made that could seriously impact their ability to earn a living from crabbing. “Somebody should go down there and represent the island,” they all agree. But no one is willing to actually do it, and so the meeting takes place without any representation from the people whose lives will be affected.

Beyond the science and the politics, however, I found myself enthralled by Swift’s pellucid descriptions of everyday life. I felt as though I was on board the crabbing boat of Ooker Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and hard-working waterman, as he pulled up his catch and sorted it into pots of jimmies (males), sooks and sallies (females), and peelers (those about to shed their shell and become the coveted soft-shell crab). Late in the book, a sudden storm blows up and puts the lives of father-and-son crabbers in peril when they are caught in the squall far from shore. I could feel the sleet lashing my face and the desperation of the men as they fought to save themselves and their boat. And when word reaches land that they are in trouble, fishermen who had just fought through the same storm and thankfully reached the safety harbor don’t hesitate for an instant before turning around and heading back into the dangerous waters to try to save their friends. 

I didn’t come away from A Chesapeake Requiem with any brilliant ideas about what should be done. Should millions of dollars be spent to save what’s left of the island and its few hundred residents? Would the money be better spent to re-locate the people of Tangier to the mainland? What do we as a society lose when we lose places like Tangier — what value do you place on that sort of community benefit when you are calculating what saving the island is worth? Swift doesn’t pretend to have the answers, either, but his moving and enlightening work helped me understand just what’s at stake on this small patch of land so far away from me.

Jackson Brodie returns

Nine years on, the moody detective picks up right where he left off in ‘Big Sky’

When last we saw Jackson Brodie, in 2011’s Started Early, Took My Dog, the introspective private investigator at the center of Kate Atkinson’s literary mystery series was wandering around Yorkshire, trying to track down an adopted woman’s biological family while coping with a rescued dog and his own personal dramas involving at least two ex-wives and a vanished fortune. Along the way, he managed to more-or-less solve a decades-old crime and rescue another stray — this time a toddler. 

He had a lot going on, is what I’m saying. 

When we meet him again in Big Sky (Little, Brown, 2019), nine years on (and after a string of World War II books from author Atkinson set), Brodie is still wandering around Yorkshire, sometimes in the company of his now-teenage son (by second ex-wife, Julia) and an aging Labrador retriever (also courtesy of Julia, who may not want to be married to Jackson anymore but trusts him implicitly with the things she loves most in the world). Brodie’s current job is tailing a local businessman to find out if he’s cheating on his wife. It’s dull work, but leave it to Brodie to inadvertantly stumble into a much larger, more sinister case simply by virtue of being in the wrong place at the right time. It isn’t long before he finds himself in the midst of marital secrets, cold cases, and human trafficking on a brisk, business-like scale.

I would certainly classify the Jackson Brodie series in the mystery genre, but Atkinson’s writing does not lend itself to the terse, straightforward “just the facts, ma’am” narrative that most people think of when they think of detective stories. She operates on a near stream-of-conscious level that has lots of space for digressions, asides, and parenthetical additions. Indeed, the first chapter of Big Sky is a scene between Jackson and his son, but the parenthetical conversations, both remembered and imagined, with Julia make her as present a character as if she wasn’t miles away filming a television series at the time. This is not a story to knock off while waiting for your car’s oil change in a noisy mechanic’s waiting room, or in 15-minute bursts of reading time at the end of the day. Atkinson’s demands my full attention when I read her work, but she rewards me with stories and characters that spring to life in my mind.

It had been so long since I read Started Early, Took My Dog that I worried I wouldn’t remember enough to be able to fall back into Jackson Brodie’s world. Those fears were unfounded — I mean, I really didn’t remember much in the way of details but it turned out not to matter in the end. Other than Julia, the only recurring character who makes a significant re-appearance here is Reggie Chase, whom we first met in When Will There Be Good News (2008). Then, she was a Scottish teenager with a tough home life; now, she is a police officer investigating the cold case that brings her back into Jackson’s orbit.

I was disappointed back in 2011 when Atkinson announced that she was done writing about Jackson Brodie, and I rejoiced when she said he was returning this year. The books she wrote in the meantime were critically acclaimed and I thoroughly enjoyed them, which made the return of Jackson Brodie seem like more of a celebration than a grasping at previous success. I don’t know if we’ll meet up with Jackson further down the road, but I’m happy to trust to Atkinson’s instincts about what she needs to write.

Illusions of safety and danger

Dennis Lehane dives deep in ‘Since We Fell’

Rachel Childs is a television journalist in Boston whose career is on a steep upward trajectory until she is sent to Haiti on assignment after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The horror she sees and experiences there leave her with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that becomes apparent when she breaks down during a live broadcast.

Back in Boston, her news career in shambles, Rachel struggles with panic attacks that leave her afraid to even leave her apartment. Her relationship with a co-worker doesn’t survive, but when she meets an old acquaintance by chance, his patient understanding of her problems leads to romance and eventually marriage. With Brian’s help, Rachel starts to re-emerge from her self-imposed exile. Her tentative journey back to normalcy is jolted, however, when on one of her first solo trips downtown she discovers Brian in a place he shouldn’t be. The discovery prompts her to use her investigative reporting skills to get to the bottom of the mystery without tipping him off to her suspicions leads her deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation where no one is who they seem.

For my money, Dennis Lehane is one of the most underrated mystery/thriller writers in the business. Yes, several of his previous novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island among them, were turned into feature films, but the books themselves never generate much discussion among my friends who enjoy Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, and others. With Since We Fell (Ecco, 2017), Lehane has delivered another intricately plotted examination of people who are not what they seem being driven to extremes by circumstances they can’t control. I appreciated that Rachel, despite her emotional fragility through much of the first part of the novel, is far from a hapless victim waiting to be rescued. She manages to engineer her own rescue on her own terms, even as she accepts the consequences of what she has to do in the process.

Lehane builds the narrative tension slowly but surely (perhaps a little too slowly at first) to a white-knuckle finish that seems both unexpected and inevitable. Nothing about this book made me any less eager to read the next offering from a first-rate writer.