Written by Leah Devlin — American cosies have a reputation for keen observation of small-town residents and local atmosphere, and this story, set in the Chesapeake Bay area of New England, is a prime example of that. Written in the third person, it introduces a vast array of characters – some likeable, some eccentric and a few enigmatic ones. The lead among them is fisheries biologist and local girl Alex Allaway, who works at the marine research centre and enjoys spending time on her tugboat Vital Spark. She is the amateur detective who tries to get to the bottom of all the crime and intrigue in Spider.
Alex is delighted to be reunited with her friend and former college roommate Nina Vega, a sociologist studying maritime fishing communities, who has just accepted a tenure-track position at local Tolchester College. On their very first day out on the boat, they witness a landslide and a house on the cliff disintegrates, revealing a pile of skeletons underneath. The house was abandoned many years ago, when the reclusive owner, Henry Herssen, moved away.
But the origin of those skeletons is not the only mystery haunting the town. Nina begins to fear that all is not well at the college. New faculty members are joining all the time, everything seems to be full of energy and promise, and the college is supposedly in good financial shape. So why is the faculty building in such dire need of renovation, with a leaking roof? Why are many of the classrooms little more than caravans in a field? Then, on her very first day at college, Nina gets injured. Has someone got a grudge against her? Is someone hiding something? Which of her colleagues are to be trusted?
If you feel that we’re giving away too much of the plot by telling you all of the above, fear not. It’s the kind of story where everything relates to something else and there are many additional complicating factors. For instance, the local community was founded by pirates and renegades a couple of centuries ago and Alex is in fact a descendant of the most notorious of them all, Giles Blood-hand. Rumour has it that the ‘pyrates’ (as they are somewhat gratingly called throughout the book) have buried treasure somewhere in the area. Add an ambitious and charismatic history professor, a ruthless and beautiful yacht-owner, a fiery Scottish mother, a love interest or two and a pair of hilariously mismatched investigators provide a delightfully eccentric cast of characters to entertain and confuse you in this crime caper.
The downside is that the large cast of characters and hopping around from one point of view to another can make it difficult to follow the story, but this is about the journey rather than the end destination. There is a lot of obfuscation until we get to the slightly far-fetched denouement, though you will find plenty of humour, misunderstandings and red herrings along the way. The first few chapters contain perhaps too much back story, but the action picks up later on.
Nina and Alex are the two figures who really stand out in terms of personality, but this is a series and there are some promising hints of further developments with secondary characters such as enthusiastic rookie Lisa Paco and middle-aged senior investigator and widower Jay Braden. Most memorable about Spider are the loving descriptions of the landscape, that unique mix of river estuary and seascape, the diverse wildlife and the turbulent local history.
This is the second in the Chesapeake Tugboat mystery series after Vital Spark, but there are sufficient references to past events to allow you to catch up. A pleasant read for those who enjoy contemporary American cosy crime, non-American writers such as Cathy Ace or writing duo Matt Costello and Neil Richards.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars