Written by Charlene D’Avanzo — This amateur sleuth story, billed as ‘A Mara Tusconi Mystery’ introduces Mara, age 31, whose work at the Maine Oceanographic Institute (MOI) centres on the timely subject of climate change. D’Avanzo deserves credit for taking on the difficult task of making science accessible to a general audience and taking advantage of the possibilities for drama inherent in this contentious field.
In this book are several key points of friction. First, between Mara and an aquaculture startup corporation up the Maine coast a short distance, which she believes may be fudging its data – anathema for any reputable scientist. And, second, between climate researchers in general and an apparently well-funded cadre of climate change deniers increasingly resorting to spying, sabotage, and threats. Mara is working hard to secure the support of another group of potential adversaries – local fishermen and lobstermen who resist the idea that the ocean is warming – by involving them in an important project.
Mara is the daughter of two legendary oceanographers, with a lot to live up to. Her parents died in an underwater accident some years before, leaving her without their counsel and with two additional handicaps. She becomes seasick easily, which is a big disadvantage on the occasional sea voyage her work requires; and, she has a severe case of stage fright, which limits her ability to contribute as much as she might to the public debate about climate change.
As a young researcher facing the typical funding difficulties, she and other MOI researchers head out to sea on their ship Intrepid to launch buoys designed to gather data on ocean warming. The buoy of her friend and colleague Harvey (a woman) launches without incident. But because Mara is seasick, she turns the launch of her buoy over to Peter Riley, a young MOI PhD. Something goes disastrously wrong with the winch, and the buoy strikes Peter, inflicting injuries that turn out to be fatal. Was it a tragic accident, or was it murder?
An old MOI hand advises Mara to investigate Peter’s death on her own, secretly, fearing the organisation may attempt a cover-up in order not to scare off potential funders. This is a chance that she never had when her parents died and at the very least what she learns may be of comfort to Peter’s young widow Sarah. The suggestion from Sarah that he’d been worried about a suspicious bio-engineering claim bolsters Mara’s determination to investigate. Thus she starts on a bit of a whirlwind of plot-driven activity.
The only non-MOI people aboard the Intrepid were the photographer and a representative from Sunnyside Aquaculture, the firm attempting to use genetic engineering to grow super-algae – biomass that can be used as an alternative fuel source. A visit to the Sunnyside facility and observation of the tanks in which the algae is being grown lead her to suspect that someone is adding commercial fertiliser. Using fertiliser would make the algae grow, but it would signal that the firm’s genetic approach has failed. Mara sets off in her kayak at night to gather water samples from near the tanks to see if there is any contaminated runoff.
D’Avanzo gives Mara a large cast of potential allies and antagonists, almost too many to flesh out in sufficient detail. The novel is told strictly from Mara’s point of view, and it’s hard to invest in the other characters based only on her experience of them.
Mara is ambivalent at first about a new colleague on the fatal Intrepid trip, Ted McKnight, an algae expert who seems to have a close bond with her friend Harvey as well as being a long-time friend of Sunnyside’s chief scientist. This creates a bit of romantic tension on top of Mara’s other dilemmas.
When the opportunity arises for Mara to play a more prominent role in the climate change debate, she must weigh the risks or harassment along with the opportunities to make a vital contribution, and her personal strengths against her fears.
Torrey House Press, LLC
CFL Rating: 3 Stars