Tidewater Review - April 2009
Foggy Murder in Maine
The Widow by Carla Neggers. MIRA Books, paperback. 318 pages. $21.95.
In a typical Maine summer, fog can roll in from the ocean in a quarter of an hour and produce a white out, a damp, chilly blanket that obscures the landscape and confuses tourists. For the summer people, the families that have been escaping the July and August heat in Boston for generations, escape to Mt. Desert Island is a ritual, a beloved rite of airing out faded blankets and curtains, steaming lobsters, walking with granite cliffs and pine forests and inhaling salt air off the ocean.
The reader of this mystery set on the island is apt to be baffled by more than the fog. In short, the author buries the reader in too many characters too early in the book.
Neggers begins her story in Boston where a young widow, a police detective, plans a trip to the island, a return to the summer house left to her by her late husband, Chris. He was the remaining child of a four-generation family of wealth and status on the island. His sister drowned when the two of them were still children, so his parents sold the big family “cottage” and moved to Florida. Chris retained a small plot and built a beach house.
It’s been seven years since Abigail, his widow, has been to the island where Chris was murdered on day four of their honeymoon. His murder has never been solved. Amid a flurry of names of Abigail’s housemates and partners at the Boston PD, Abigail receives a mysterious phone call – it’s impossible to tell if the altered voice is male or female – that beckons her to return to the island. “Things are happening on the island – again,” the voice says.
And the reader is off to the island off the coast of Maine, leaving behind all the names and roles sorted out in the first few chapters. There’s and even larger roster to identify. Three men remain of the quartet of adolescent buddies who grew up with Chris. One is the town cop, another is a private entrepreneur who runs a company that provides quick response to disasters all over the world, and the third is now the island drunk who works as a yard man.
Up on the hill is the Cooper family, current owners of Chris’s family “cottage.” The oldest brother, Jason, has been serially married and whose daughter, Grace, is being vetted for a sensitive job in the State Department, so FBI agents are on the island to talk to her friends and neighbors. Things get a tad complicated because Grace had a huge crush on Chris when they were younger. Oh yes, and Abigail’s daddy is director of the FBI. Grace has a younger half-brother, Linc, who’s a bit of a sissy, the misfit in the family. And there’s the effeminate uncle Ellis, Jason’s brother whose life work is beautification of the cottage garden.
Every character has a back story. It wasn’t until midway through the book that this reader recognized the connections among all the players.
Abigail is determined to solve her husband’s murder, a cold case on the books after seven years. She keeps getting more mysterious phone calls, her house is broken into, she discovers the identity of the “ghost” who’s scaring the local kids, she is attacked more than once (that damned fog is at it again) and finds a new romance with graphic sex.
Meanwhile, a whole raft of police officers enter the scene, old wounds are re-infected, a house of cards collapses and Abigail moves on with her life. She’s not likely to be a widow much longer.
Do not, repeat not, try to read this book in installments. It’s too easy to be confused with all those characters milling around to keep track of who’s doing what to whom, where, why and eventually, who cares?
The old saw in mysteries usually brings out a mocking voice declaring, “The butler did it.” There’s no butler in this crowded cast of characters, but I correctly guessed the identity of the villain the minute he appeared on the page. It was still fun to figure out how the author untangled all the red herrings on the island. Mildly entertaining.
Fiddler and Whores by James Lowry. Chatham Publishing. 192 pages. $24.95.
This breezy and provocative story is a true account, we assume, of a young surgeon in the British fleet in the Mediterranean under Admiral Lord Nelson from 1797 until his return to Ireland in 1804.
The title comes from Nelson’s succinct description of Naples, a frequent port of call, as “country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels.” To a very young, inexperienced boy, the habits of Italian ladies in society were a broadening part of the author’s education.
Lowry’s memoir, written for his slightly older brother, a clergyman, was intended as a private correspondence. It remained so for two centuries until a descendant was eager to have it published. As such, it reads as a travelog, a keen observation of life aboard naval vessels and a sketchy picture of medical care of the era.
Lowry was not a product of military education. He finished studies in the classics – Latin and Greek – at the age of 18. What propelled him into the navy is unclear, but it may have been prompted as a plan to take a quick medical course and join the fight against Napoleon rather than enter a military school and study to be an officer. There are few references to Lowry’s actually practicing medicine, although he generally describes the illnesses among the common sailors as “venereals.”
A photograph of Lowry’s surgeon’s chest is included and identifiable on the top layer is a saw, a handy tool for amputation as a result of battle wounds. Lowry was on duty for a number of engagements, both in battles with ships of the French Navy as well as in a mopping-up encounter with French troops in the desert after the battle of the Nile. Lowry did not take part in front-line fighting, but followed at the rear to treat the injuries, sometimes of both sides.
Perhaps his most harrowing experience was being shipwrecked off the Spanish coast. The ship was dashed upon a rocky shore near cliffs, possibly near Gibraltar, although the exact site is unclear. At any rate, storms were so severe that rescue was delayed for several days after the survivors made it to a deserted shore, cut off from provisions and dry clothes. It was in that disaster that Lowry lost the detailed diary of all his adventures, plus his drawings of animals of North Africa and scenes of dwellings and natural features of Turkey, Egypt, Charthage and Tripoli, Morocco and the volcanic islands of Greece.
Lowry apologized to his brother for the truncated account of his navy service, explaining that there were large gaps in the tale, as he had to reproduce the whole text from memory after the shipwreck.
Lowry was a lusty young man, indeed, and was pleasantly amazed at the lax morals of married women in some regions of the Mediterranean. British officers were apparently highly esteemed as guests among titled circles, feted with dinners and balls, sight-seeing tours and sexual dalliances. Lowry confided openly in his memoir to his brother, who must have been a remarkably worldly man of the cloth.
He found the women of Turkey mysterious, even grotesque, in their tent-like garb. He was warned never to so much as glance, let alone speak to any woman at the risk of being beheaded, a fate that befell a young Scotsman while Lowry was there. He also remarked on the lack of hygiene in both Italy and France, an indifference to bathing by both sexes.
The British Navy was far superior to the French navy, but French armies were at the height of their conquest of Europe. In one maritime battle, Lowry’s ship was overcome and he was taken prisoner. He marveled at the courtesy of his French captors when, as an officer he was treated as a welcomed guest until a prisoner exchange sent him back to duty.
His amorous adventures made shoreside visits lively, and he narrowly avoided being captured in matrimony when nuptials were delayed several times as protocols dragged on for the Pope to sanction the union of a Catholic girl to an Irish Protestant. Lowry was philosophical about the aborted wedding, telling his brother that no sailor should have a wife.
After six years, Lowry returned home, retired from the navy and practiced medicine until his death in 1855. It is not written whether his life ashore led him to marriage or parenthood. Perhaps it was sufficient to let him doze by the fire and remember the fiddlers and whores of his youth.