Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Beach Reading, New England Style: BOILED OVER, 2nd Maine Clambake Mystery, Barbara Ross

My beach life has been the northern New England version: bring sweatshirt, blanket, long pants, extra socks, maybe even hot tea in a Thermos.

No, it's not really that cold. At least, not often. Or not every day. What can I say? My mom loved the rocky, wind-swept coast of Maine; my dad never took us to the "gentle" beaches on Cape Cod because they are more crowded -- we could go to the colder side and spend less money and waste less time while still collecting shells and sniffing the salt air; and by the way, here in land-locked Vermont, "beach" means a narrow strip of sand alongside a lake where the last ice vanished maybe six weeks ago.

But it's June, and there will be hot sunny afternoons, even if the mornings are "fresh" (almost frosty) and the nights sparkle with a cold clear star-scape. It's time to stack up the summer reading, whether it's for the beach or the hammock or the couch. Let's add the new Maine Clambake Mystery from Barbara Ross.

Ross's first book in this series, Clammed Up, introduced Julia Snowden to readers last year. Snowdon may be from Maine, but her skills have been honed in New York City. Only her family's dire financial predicament has her back to the rocky coast, for a rescue mission that she figures won't last all that long.

But here we are in BOILED OVER and it's clear her family still needs her -- every small accident costs the struggling family clambake enterprise in customers and profits. (What's a clambake? Picture all the Maine summer foods at once, from lobster and clams to potato salad and blueberry dessert. The hot part is the official clambake, cooked in a pit with heated rocks and some seaweed; the rest is a delicious harmony.) So when Julia realizes that her family's food scene as part of the Busman's Harbor "Founder's Weekend" celebration has just become a crime scene -- with a human foot -- her worries escalate rapidly. There goes the food investment; there goes the reputation of the family firm (again!); and here come the police, skeptical about Julia's repeated involvement with suspicious circumstances and the hunt for a killer.
I stood for a moment in the crowd, listening more carefully. Sure enough, below the happy chatter about the watercolors of lobster buoys and the oil paintings of crashing waves, there was a low throb of commentary from the local people on the other side of the tables.

"They say it was the boy, the one who ran away."

"I hear he's wanted by the police up in Washington County."

"I heard he's a serial killer."

"What was a person like that doing working for the Snowdens?"

And always the refrain, "If he didn't do anything, why did he run?"

Sometimes I frickin' hated living in a small town.
Ross twists a tight and exciting plot from the hunt for the "boy who ran away" (is he indeed a criminal?) and for the motives leading to killing one of the region's leading business owners. And in Julia Snowden she has an amateur sleuth whose investigatory skills and motives are utterly convincing -- no need to make excuses for why Julia's on the hunt. Heck, the police officers are even giving her hints and asking for her help this time! (Well, maybe that move was too good to be true ... could explain why they seem to be following her ... ) And the lively characters and Julia's struggles to both embrace them and hold back something of her city self make the mystery even more interesting.

A twist that writers and seasoned readers will especially appreciate is Julia's assignment for the Founder's Weekend committee itself: discover the town's past, and the reason it's named "Busman's Harbor." For some insight into Ross's research into her fictional town's history, check this post she wrote on the Maine Crime Writers blog, not long before the book was published. I enjoyed the mention of Busman's Honeymoon, and the real list of resources, too.

Two more aspects make BOILED OVER into an especially well-rounded mystery for summer reading: the frustrating and poignant struggles that Julia's enduring with her romantic life on the side (how can she commit when she knows she doesn't belong back here?), and the yummy handful of recipes to bring alive that taste of Maine, home of beans, lobster, blueberry pie, and more.

Interested in meeting this author, whose books are rapidly finding a home on all sorts of bestseller and award nomination lists? She keeps an organized list of public events on her website: http://maineclambakemysteries.com/appearances -- and is as much fun in person as her sleuth Julia Snowdon is on the pages.

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