Series fans have been waiting eagerly for this new title, and know the backstory to what Julia Snowden is facing: the fire-cored disaster of her family's historic house on the Maine coast island where she and her relatives are scrambling to re-open their profitable clam-bake operation for the new summer season; a loving but at times highly uncertain relationship with her boyfriend Chris, steady but without specific commitments; her mother, widowed and still not quite back in the groove of the family business; and an awkward relationship (to say the least!) with the local police investigators, who have worked with her far too often since she returned to Maine from her high-pressure urban finance career, in order to help her family.
Barbara Ross skillfully sketches in the frame as she establishes Julia's "new normal" of ocean-based entrepreneurship and local networking (so if you're new to the series, you'll be fine jumping in here). As Julia greets a preservation architect climbing off a boat to view the burned-out mansion to appraise whether it can be saved, seasoned mystery readers will suspect a that the plot's about to leap forward via the "stranger coming to town" move. But to Julia's horror, the "stranger" turns out to be someone she knew in high school -- one of a group of mean girls who'd tormented and humiliated her. How can she possibly trust this architect to determine her family's future investment on the island?
On the other hand, the new arrival, known as Susan in the old days but now by her middle name, Wyatt, comes with a boyfriend of her own -- a reclusive billionaire whose mega yacht is about to be rehabbed in Julia's town of Busman's Harbor. The stresses and strains of the cast of characters ramp up sharply when the billionaire, the real stranger of the moment, is murdered.
I savored this scene Ross provided in a local club, where Julia sank into a seat for a bite to eat and could listen to speculation around her:
The theories abounded, everything from suicide to the Russian mafia. "He was a billionaire who made money on the banking collapse," someone said.Soon, though, popular opinion circles around to blaming the yacht's chef, an old friend of Julia's. And she finds herself sticking up for both this friend, and the architect, in spite of the bad feeling from high school.
"It was the girlfriend," the husband of the chef declared.
"Why do you say that?" I kept my tone conversational, not challenging.
"It's always the girlfriend," he answered.
"I don't see how it benefits her," I countered.
"Maybe he was terrible in bed," someone offered.
"If that were a reason for murder, half the men at this table would be dead," the bartender's wife joked.
"What do mean, half?" a girlfriend of one of the band members deadpanned. Everybody laughed.
Meanwhile, multiple twists are unfolding around her. In a familiar angle of this series, Julia suddenly has reason to wonder about one of her boyfriend's past relationships -- and with time, will realize she's never asked enough questions to really understand his family background as well. In fact, there's a lot Julia hasn't questioned among her friends, and some of the revelations will bear on the murder -- and some will be false leads.
Ross's expertise in complicating the plot in highly believable ways shines in STOWED AWAY. When the solution to what's on board finally arrives, there are surprises right and left -- but every one of them makes perfect sense, if the right clues have been considered. STOWED AWAY is a prime traditional mystery, highly satisfying, and a lively and enjoyable addition to this quintessential New England series. (And yes, there are more great recipes at the back!)
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.