Saturday, February 08, 2020

San Juan Islands Mystery #3, AN UNFAMILIAR SEA, Fast-Moving Traditional Mystery from Bethany Maines

There are two kinds of crime fiction: the ones that begin with action, suspense, and risk, and the ones that build up to it with a few chapters that connect you first to the characters and the setting.

No, come to think of it, there's a third kind, and Bethany Maines writes this kind -- the ones that begin with a moment of conversation that makes you snort your coffee in the wrong direction, or grin so widely that strangers ask what you're reading.

Maines brought out a series a decade ago based on a global cosmetic company being a front for high-tech, high-action women agents in international espionage. Those "Carrie Mae" books tended to get me into trouble with my quietly reading spouse, because I'd be choking, laughing, and insisting on telling him the wild and wildly funny plot twists.

With her San Juan Islands series (islands off the coast of Washington state), Maines takes a few steps into more traditional layouts for detection and espionage: Tish Yearly, a lapsed actress, wound up living with her aging grandfather Tobias on Orcas Island because she ran out of other options -- and learned in the process that he's a retired CIA agent. To keep him busy, she's helped him get a private investigations agency rolling, and at the start of book 3, AN UNFAMILIAR SEA, Trish is digging into island life by opening her own business: a wedding destination.

But nothing's as simple as it sounds at first. For example, there's the process of being a boss -- when Tish least expects it, an employee for the wedding business anounces, "I'm pregnant."
Tish's thoughts and her feet came to a stumbling halt. "What?" Tish stared at twenty-two-year-old Penelope Drue, who was clasping and unclasping her hands in front of her chest. Penelope looked like she needed more than a one-word question, but Tish needed more than a two-word announcement. "Congratulations?" Tish tried.
When Penelope is found dead the next day, and only Tish and presumably the father know about the pregnancy, Tish tackles convincing the law enforcement team on hand that there could be more to the death than an accident. That shouldn't be too hard to do, considering Tish is "involved" with one of the investigators -- but actually that complicates things most of the time. ("Dating Nash had never been in her plans, but kissing Nash was always on her top ten list. He made her toes curl.")

Add in discovering her grandfather's been jailed on the mainland, and trying to sort out a possible involvement of the local drug dealer on several fronts. But what Tish never dreamed would happen is a personal attack from that very same grandfather, who's apparently been sure she won't stay on the island and therefore won't keep the business going and ... should we mention what that could do to Nash, in grandfather Tobias's unkind opinion?

Don't confuse this with a "romance mystery." Tish often has a sardonic edge to her, which keeps the dialogue snappy, whether it's with suspects, or just in her head -- or with Detective Spring, a law enforcement pro who definitely doesn't have a soft spot for her:
"Here to bail [your grandfather] out?" he asked.

It was exactly this kind of question that annoyed Tish. He knew the answer. Why even ask?

"No," said Tish. "I brought him a cake with a file in it, but other than that, I figure he's on his own. I'm going to spend my evening recording over his Matlock collection." Detective Spring raised an eyebrow and gave her a look. She gave him a look back.
Maines balances a delicious amount of risk and re-thinking with the perils of island life, and her red herrings (fresh from the Pacific?) provide both puzzle solving and lively distraction along the way. As with most traditional mysteries, you've got a chance to figure out the villain before Tish was -- but you may be chuckling (or biting your nails) too much to follow the right thread. One way or another, shelve this one as really good entertainment — a well-blended caper mystery with memorable scenics and characters, just enough edge to the humor, and satisfying strands in the solving.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

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