Tidewater Review - August 2012

Terror Flower

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

Terror Flower by Thomas Hollyday. Solar Sipper Publications. Paperback. 202 pp. $14.95. Kindle, $2.99.
Listed as A River Sunday Romance Mystery, Hollyday’s Terror Flower is a repeat visit to the small town where the Nanticoke River moseys in and out of the Chesapeake Bay.
Slave Graves, the first of his four previous books in the series, is a good introduction to the locale, not unlike Tilghman or St. Michaels in the 1960s. This book opens with a grabber first sentence: “The town ambulance shocked the early summer heat with its wail.”
The fictional village of River Sunday is whisked out of somnolence in response to a gathering crowd at the watermens’ dock in the tiny harbor. The workboat Emmy is being towed home by the Coast Guard. In it lies the body of Captain Bob, an elderly black waterman respected by the whole village.
“He drowned,” is the almost universal verdict by the onlookers. There’s a half-empty wine bottle rolling around in the bilge. The corpse is badly cut by his line, apparently what snagged the old man when he fell overboard and pulled him into the blades of the propeller. He’s minus one boot and the boat anchor is nowhere to be found, absent from its usual spot on deck.
Only one dissenter vetoes the likelihood of accidental death. The Captain’s grandson, Smote, yells his opinion. “He was murdered!”
And right there in chapter one, Hollyday sets up the rest of the story, introducing the reader to the good guys, the bad guys and the maybe guys. It should be said from the start, the chapters are short, the action is engrossing, cleverly plotted and the dialogue is – well – not always a match with the speakers. But, let’s overlook that flaw. It’s still a very good read.
The hero and main character is Jim Tench, part owner of the village auto body shop. He’s a classic car enthusiast who is building his own racer in the back of the shop. That’s no small clue, so stay tuned.
His black mechanics are Katy and Smiley (he’s also a part owner of the business) – as is Tench’s aunt, the mayor of River Sunday. She’s a big town booster, as she owns nearly half of it. A cameo walk-on is Marengo, the black manager and accountant for the owner of the Big House, who is listed in the maybe good, maybe bad man category.
On the side of the bad guys is the new caretaker of the Big House. Stagmatter is universally hated by everyone for his rudeness and contempt for the whole village. He’s a native Argentinean hired to guard and service the boss man’s collection of rare classic cars. Stagmatter oversees a nasty group of new hires, all black specialty mechanics. Stagmatter speaks only German to them. Uh-oh! The people of River Sunday are grateful that none of that crew ever comes into the village.
And now to the maybes. The Big House is a former plantation is owned by Mr. Starke, a rich man in the oil business who is only occasionally in residence. He’s popular in the village during his off-and-on visits. He’s handsome, has beautiful manners and is friendly to everyone. The single act that piques the watermen is his order to prohibit fishing off his shoreline, the best place to troll for a catch. His reason is that it should be a refuge to encourage fish restoration, a move the authorities sanction. Captain Bob was known for edging just a tad over the line.
We also learn that Tench and Mr. Starke’s daughter, Julie, have been an item in the romance department for many years, but Julie has moved to Houston to work for her dad in the oil business. Tench can’t reach her by phone for their weekly call and he’s fretting.
Now that the reader knows the cast, a new face appears. A tall beautiful black woman who is a guest at the Big House and is the author of a book pleading the case for African tribes exploited by colonialism. Because River Sunday has a mildly famous slave memorial, Dr. Owerri decides to talk about her book at the local library before a scheduled appearance before the United Nations.
Meanwhile, Tench and Smote sneak into forbidden waters to look for any clue to the old man’s death. It’s not giving away the plot to expect that those forays are not simple – anything but.
Thus begins the terror of the book title. Two of the trusted good guys come out tarnished and the villains are ungodly villainous.
Hollyday pulls out a lot of inventive twists to send the plot spinning at warp speed. He links a threat from a bulldozer in pursuit, a show of World War II aircraft in Annapolis, an old underground tunnel, the use of well-chewed bubble gum as a weapon, dope, terrorism and betrayal. Whoopee!
The shrewd reader will identify one bad guy early on, but the ending of the book, fraught with as much special effects as an action movie, has a climax as vivid as an IMAX movie that make the audience wear those funny 3-D glasses. In short, Terror Flower is a cautionary tale. Not a likely scenario, but a deliciously scary battle between good and evil.
To quibble, Hollyday is a talented writer who should hire an eagle-eyed proofreader.
In spite of that annoyance, I really enjoyed this tale and read it twice. Recommended.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.