Book review: Exciting murder mystery that kayakers might enjoy

I recently reviewed a novel for Atlantic Coastal Kayaker magazine about lobsters, the Maine Coast and an intrepid kayaker - a sometime sleuth - who investigates the disappearance of a lobsterman. It’s a great winter read!

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The recently dumped body of a Maine lobsterman is discovered floating in the water by Mara Tusconi, oceanographer, avid sea kayaker and reluctant amateur sleuth. The answer to the mystery of his demise may lie with the lobstermen (there are, as Charlene D’Avanzo points out, female lobstermen too!) who live precariously on an isolated island 25 miles offshore on the coast of Maine, reachable by boat from the Oceanographic Institute where Dr. Tusconi carries out her research on the ecology of lobsters. Dr. Tusconi, Mara to her friends, begins to unravel the mystery surrounding the death by visiting the island and getting to know the islanders. On the island, she also discovers a secret from her childhood and learns to reconcile a fear that has been haunting her around the tragic disappearance of her oceanographer parents during a diving accident. The book’s epigraph by Shakespeare, ‘What is past is prologue’, suggests to the reader that this is a book filled with secrets from the past which are about to be revealed. 

The central whodunnit theme is intertwined with sub-themes revolving around Mara’s life as a marine ecologist and as a sea kayaker. We get to meet her colleagues at the Oceanographic Institute, the numerous characters who make their living on Macomek Island and then there are friends and confidants, one of which is a pet lobster living in the basement of the Research Institute which Mara visits during times of stress and where ‘ocean water thunders through pipes into hundreds of tanks and aquaria on its way back out to the ocean’. She goes there oftenbecause,‘just walking through the basement’s double swinging doors lifts her spirit’. A solitary soul though she may be, this is a novel absolutely filled with people - there around 30 characters in the book – and somehow D’Avanzo makes every one of them relevant to the main plot.

As an expert in her field of marine ecology, Mara has a whole lot of confidence and at the same time she has a lot of empathy for the locals who make their living hauling lobster traps. She is feisty, fiercely independent and driven. She cares deeply about the consequences of climate change on the lobster industry in the Gulf of the Maine both from a scientific perspective and alsobecause of itspotential economic effect on the lobster communities. She only agrees, against her better judgment, toinvestigate the mysterious death sinceher cousin, Gordy Maloy, President of Maine Lobster Alliance andan ‘independent lobsterman with Irish stubbornness thrown in’, is deeply implicated. Otherwise she would have preferred to bewriting scientific papers, reviewing research grants and solo kayaking in her free time. The book is written in thefirst person narrative and we learn through Mara’s eyeshow she, as a woman in academia, navigates the rigid, predominantly male and sometimes petty world of academic departmental office politics. But Mara has her demons - she has struggled to reach her current position in the research world and relies on her female colleagues for advice andsupport, as well as on Angelo, retired marine engineer, hergodfather and an important father-figureand stand-in parent.Seymour Hull, Chair of the Department of Oceanography is‘good at pushing people’s guilt buttons’, andTed, one of Mara’s colleagues is more elusive– he and Mara were once in a seriousrelationship and when Ted started talking about marriage Mara ended the relationship, which she often regrets. So things at the institute are complicated and she needs her friends.

Now she is thrown into the midst of a possible murder mystery. FromGordy’s boat she thinksthat the landmass ofMacomek islandfrom a distance,‘looked likea magnet for irradiance, as if it were hungry for sustenance at the day’s end’.She justifies getting to the island in Gordy’s boat with her kayak on board as a good opportunity to talk with the lobstermen about their efforts to self regulate their lobster catch. This may even help her with research - kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. One of them, Malacite Dupris, for example, is a MacomekIsland lobsterman whoworks on the federal eLobster program to monitor changes in lobster populations. Through Malacite we learn that some lobstermen think that ‘climate change is baloney cooked up by Democrat eggheads looking to get money from the government. And that by working with NOAA scientists they would be admitting there’s global warming’.Mara reallygets it - there’s the science, and on the other handthere arethe livelihoods of lobstermen and their families whowill be affectedby government regulation.

This is D’Avanzo’s second Mara Tusconi novel - a third will be published in 2019. Like D’Avanzo’s other books, ‘Secrets Haunt...’, sits squarely in the ‘environmental mystery’ sub-genre and it’s no accident, as a highly published research scientist in marine ecology and long time sea kayaker herself, that D’Avanzo writes with some considerable authority on both these topics. She has a near perfect knack of pulling the reader in, especially those who already have a good sense for the Maine coast, for sea kayaking and for the impact in the region of climate change. There were some particularly heartening sections: in spite of recent environmental pressures, ‘below and on the water, the Gulf of Maine is astoundingly diverse. The mostrecent marine census yielded a whoppingthree thousand speciesincluding six hundredkinds of fish, a hundred and eighty birds,thirtymammals,and over seven hundreddifferent kinds of algae’. And, of sea kayaking, Mara’s insight into her connection with the ocean from the cockpit of a kayak such as, ‘...The first few minutes in my sea kayak always remind me why I’m passionate about the sport’, will resonate for many readers of this magazine.

This book will be enjoyed by lovers of mystery writing, by both climate change activists and sceptics and will particularly appeal tosea kayakers and tothose who know the magic of the Maine coast up close.

ISBN (paperback)978-1-63381-136-2

Maine Authors Publishing, 2018, 248 pages