Tidewater Review - October 2009
Ravens as Thugs and Vintage Crime
Ravens by George Dawes Green, Grand Central Publishing. 336 pages. $16.49.
This is the third in the George Dawes Green trilogy of crime fiction. As mentioned in my last review, this is the book that is touted on the book jacket with the come-on, “The Boatwrights just won $318 million in the Georgia State Lottery. It’s going to be the worst day in their lives.”
The Boatwrights are a normal American family, small town dwellers with quirks like all families. Dad is a serious Christian, Mom has a wee bit of a drinking problem, working girl daughter goes to night school at a community college and has a bratty little mama’s-boy brother. The news that their lottery ticket is the winner of big bucks is a jolt into a life of imagined indulgence. It must be a secret until it’s officially confirmed.
It’s hard to keep a secret in a small town. The young clerk at the convenience store where the ticket was purchased can’t restrain herself from making a phone call to share the news. She doesn’t realize that her phone conversation is overheard by a young man who stops in the store for a soft drink. He’s up to no good.
Actually, the transient young man is more of an opportunist than a criminal. He and his buddy, bored with their jobs as computer technicians in Ohio, are en route to the Caribbean, where they’ll sell their truck and be beach bums until something better comes up. What has just come up, however, is the scent of money. All they need to do is hatch a plan to get half the lottery winnings and be on their way.
In a local motel, the brighter of the two men pores over his computer, researching the name of the leaked family bonanza, his occupation and place of work, home address and relatives with the same name. He concocts a way to visit the Boatwrights and takes them hostage, warning them that their relatives will die, one by one, if they contact the police. His partner, he tells them, has a map of the residence of each relative, and he’ll be circling town, day and night, for a cell phone call to start the killings if a problem arises.
Green is a master of his craft and a clever student of the psychology of greed. The Boatwrights are not the most astute brains in town, but agree to go along with the charade. They introduce their new house guest as an old friend of Dad’s and say they bought the ticket together. The alternative is to be culpable in the deaths of family members they love.
The lie has to hold for only a few days until the lottery bigwigs come to town for a televised presentation of the check and the bad boys will resume their Caribbean caper. At church, the primary instigator of the scheme announces that he’ll spend his half of the pile in charitable acts. He’s embraced and adored by hordes of religious fundamentalists, with the result of a riotous camp meeting where the bad guy is compared to Jesus while the Boatwrights fume and quail in fear.
Keep this guy content, they decide, as long as that cell phone is not a threat. Well, the all-important cell phone is accidentally dropped off the side of a fishing boat, the command system to start the shooting is short-circuited and all hell breaks loose. It’s as showy an end to the tale as a troop of cavalry riding over the hill.
This isn’t a crime story to frighten the reader as much as it is to amuse him. Green has chronicled the Ravens caper with panache and sly grins. It’s a fun read without heartburn.
The Bordeaux Betrayal by Ellen Crosby. Scribner. 288 pages. $20.75.
Here’s a novel that partially debunks the mystique of Virginia horse country as a cocoon of wealthy, indulgent do-nothings. In Crosby’s take on the scene, its inhabitants are equally hard-working and successful people, most of whom have earned their money, not inherited it. That they’re all horse-crazy isn’t denied, but some are toiling for their privileged lives.
Among them is the narrator of the story, Lucie Montgomery, a single, accident-crippled woman whose passion is the local vineyard established by her grandfather.
Lucie is also mildly besotted by an on again-off again affair with her Brit neighbor who owns an adjoining vineyard. In the annual charity bazaar sponsored by the horsey set, all members are agog by the donation of a rare bottle of Margaux, one of the famous wines from Bordeaux. What makes this bottle special is its provenance. It’s reputedly one of the rare vintages recently discovered as part of a lost shipment ordered by Thomas Jefferson for his friend, George Washington, with GW etched in its glass to differentiate it from the bottles in the same shipment delivered to Jefferson. The auction committee on which Lucie serves is thrilled at the attention and profit it will bring to its sale.
The book opens at Mount Vernon for a talk by an inept, self-promoting woman writer. Her recent book on wine has been excoriated by a noted wine critic who publicly criticizes the book as the work of a know-nothing and a blatant plagiarist. Their feud is public and bitter. Alas, the book author elbows in on the news of the rare wine donation and visits Lucie’s vineyard. Shortly thereafter, Lucie finds her dead in a car that’s skidded into a creek and turned upside-down. Nobody’s surprised to learn her car’s been tampered with. But by whom? So many people dislike her that the field is open.
New on the scene is another beautiful young woman, the ex-wife of Lucie’s head winemaker, a taciturn hunk of few words. She arrives on the arm of the donor of the GW wine bottle. It isn’t long before she, too, is found dead at the end of a row of grapevines.
It’s harvest time at the vineyard and Crosby introduces in easy-to-swallow pauses in the story a brief review of what’s involved in the trip from the grapevine to the wineglass. These forays may be of little interest to teetotalers, but fascinating to lovers of the product. The mini-lectures do nothing to hold up the action.
And action there is aplenty. Harvest time coincides with a preface to the fox-hunting season, a time called “cubbing.” That’s when young hounds are introduced to the chase, tutored by their betters and informally trained. What makes this fall’s season different is the new neighbors who’ve just moved on the other side of Lucie’s vineyard. They’re rabid anti-foxhunting activists and want her to join their cause by taking her farm off the network of landowners who give permission for crossing their turf. Lucie’s family has permitted the hunt to cross their land for more than a century, and she politely refuses to join the protest. Whoa! Soon she finds a fake fox disemboweled and covered in fake blood on her doorstep.
The pace picks up when the wine donor takes back the gift. Lucie’s French grandfather comes to visit, the town gossip lets slip a secret, and a nasty teenager turns to vandalism, all adding to the suspense as the auction date nears. Lucie is in as much peril as Pauline on the railroad tracks.
Horses thunder over the jumps, the winetasters are sipping the vintage at breakfast time, the Blue Ridge is bluer than ever and Lucie has a new beau.
A satisfying fermentation all in good friendship and fun. Tally ho! A giddy read, indeed.