Carolina crimeThe Triangle continues to produce a crop of deliciously murderous authors. This spring we are treated to two juicy mysteries from relatively new novelists, both of whom are members of the locally based resource group, Carolina Crime Writers. Snipe Hunt, by Raleigh author Sarah R. Shaber, features the eagerly awaited return of reluctant sleuth Simon Shaw. And a huge new talent has burst onto the mystery scene with Durham resident Ann Prospero's stunningly crafted first novel, Almost Night.
Shaber made her debut three years ago with the Malice Domestic award-winning novel, Simon Said. Once again picking up accolades, Shaber's Snipe Hunt has been chosen as the May alternate selection of the Mystery Guild. In what promises to be the second of an ongoing series, she reprises Simon Shaw--the young, engagingly neurotic, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor at fictional Kenan College in Raleigh.
As the story begins, Simon is planning to relax with friends over the Thanksgiving holidays at Pearlie Beach, a fictional beach familiar to any North Carolinian who ever spent time south of Wilmington. But Simon and his archaeologist friend, David Morgan, are asked to help identify a mysterious object dragged up from the water during an environmental impact study. So much for rest and relaxation. The object turns out to be the remains of someone inside a World War II era diving suit. The deceased also just happens to be clutching a fortune in Confederate gold.
Was the dead diver murdered? Who was he? Why does it matter now, 50-something years later? And, of course, is there more gold? Shaber leaves plenty of clues, but her masterful plotting, fairly dripping with historic details, combines with the byzantine complexities of extended, eccentric Southern families to make Snipe Hunt a wonderful tangle of red herrings.
An admitted research addict, Shaber spins her tale with a dizzying array of facts, handily combining details about Nazi U-boats, the treasury of the Confederacy, North Carolina barrier islands and beaches, 17th and 18th century logging practices, forensics, archaeology and weaponry. But she keeps her wits about her and this information slips into the reader's awareness just as enjoyably as her more cozy embellishments, such as the beach-house decor and the mouth-watering meals that keep our hero going.
Shaber is also a master at the telling detail that creates a sense of place and shows the essence of a character. You can smell the salt air and feel the sand in your socks as you chase her clues up and down the late autumn beach. And each quirky member of the Pearlie family resonates as deeply recognizable, without descending into cliché or caricature.
It seems, however, that the brilliant but endearingly clumsy Simon Shaw of the first novel has become a bit more sexy, confident and, well, normal. Julia McGloughlin, the beautiful police attorney who stole Simon's heart in the first book, returns in Snipe Hunt. But Simon's earlier shy and vulnerable courtship has given way to a cockier approach. His neuroses and squeamishness when dealing with discomfort and solving murders have been replaced with an almost swashbuckling attitude. Thankfully, this is not overplayed and he remains a likable, sympathetic personality.
The hallmark of a good whodunit is that V-8 Juice moment when you slap your forehead with, "Oh! I should have seen that coming!" In Shaber's Snipe Hunt, you can almost see it coming. But then, not quite. If you are longing to stick your toes in the sand and lose yourself in a tale of intrigue, greed and murder, you needn't wait for summer. Snipe Hunt is a ripping good read that will leave you hungry for the next installment.
When I first examined the dust jacket of Ann Prospero's Almost Night, I admit I was somewhat dismayed. The term "nightmare" comes up more than once. I generally prefer the cozier genre of writers like Shaber and others, where the dead bodies stay at a safe distance. Prospero's moody tale of a slasher who targets successful but lonely Miami women could have been gory, hard-boiled procedural crime fiction, full of forensic horrors. True, she is unflinchingly accurate in the details of police investigation, but Prospero's relentless pacing, compelling characters and powerful suspense are spellbinding.
When a high-powered former Orange Bowl queen is found brutally tortured and murdered in her expensive bayside apartment, homicide detective Susannah Cannon is called in as leader of the investigative team and the tale unfolds from Susannah's point of view. The team has only begun to gather the facts when the killer strikes again, with even greater savagery. These high profile murders are just the kind of publicity that the tourism and political machines of south Florida despise, putting Susannah under enormous pressure to find the killer before the next death.
As the brutality of the killer escalates, the team races against time. Like pieces coming together in a puzzle, the psychological composite of the murderer's intended victims begins to look very like Susannah herself--thoroughly smart, dedicated professionals who are prone to entangling themselves with cold, loveless men. Could the killer be someone she knows? Someone already close to her? In fact, is he already taking dead aim at her?
A former longtime resident of Miami and published poet, Prospero couples her knowledge of the urban area with lush imagery that evokes the city's many faces, from mean streets to lavish high life, from subtropical wilderness to the steaming asphalt jungle: "Miami sparkles," Prospero writes. "Green leaves spill over the streets from extravagant neo-tropical plants, and flowers bloom in colors as bright and clear as if they were new crayons in a freshly opened box. The sun glitters--on water, in windows, off the streets and houses and plants--and all night the neon signs and streetlights and headlights blare their gaudy colors ... "
As Susannah Cannon drives through the city, her detective eye often turns to the cityscape. "The day hadn't turned bright yet," she notes, "and the sunlight was still tinted copper, and the bay water, not yet choppy, was a moving image of the sky." The detective is as riveting as the scenery: a tough, savvy cop with a complicated family life, a penchant for rotten relationships, and a deeply healing connection to nature. Susannah Cannon has no tidy answers and is full of the foibles, flaws and secrets of real life.
Cannon's colleagues are also richly drawn. Susannah's partner, Cuban-born detective Rafael Hernández is street-smart with a gentle side; the hard-nosed Bea Williams is the first female and African-American homicide department commander; the brilliant Dr. Lal Raja is a forensic pathologist from India; and detective Elton Hall is a good old Miami boy who, as Susannah muses "had staked out his maleness for almost 20 years before I joined the force." Together, the characters create a revealing portrait of the city with historic, small-town roots that has become the sprawling, multicultural behemoth of today.
With a sequel already well under way, there's hope that we may see more of these folks. In the meantime, Almost Night is a breathless, complex page-turner. Yes, for the more timid among us, there are a few scenes that are best read by peeking from between our fingers. But be forewarned. Take the phone off the hook, send the family away for the weekend. You will not want to put Almost Night down.