“Touch-Me-Not,” by Cynthia Riggs, Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2010, 272 pp. $24.99.
Cynthia Riggs, West Tisbury’s own town and Island activist, and innkeeper, is close to the halfway point of her goal of writing 20 books since “Deadly Nightshade,” the first in her Martha’s Vineyard Mystery series, was published in 2001.
Similar to the others, her ninth and most polished novel, “Touch-Me-Not” (her novels are cryptically named after flowers), is set on the Vineyard, and expresses much of the year-round Island style and culture. While the events and characters are all fictitious, it’s impossible for an Islander not to find recognizable aspects — composites of neighbors and of almost-but-not-quite news-making Island landmarks, happenings, and details: moped accidents, movie nights at the West Tisbury Library, the Chappy ferry, fishing at Wasque, the prevalence of hitchhiking, and when one character asks what she should wear to dinner, she is told, “Clean jeans.”
“Touch-Me-Not” (flower is a natural antidote for poison ivy) begins quietly with typical Vineyard routines: A guest in an old house blows a fuse using her hairdryer. Popular Island electrician LeRoy Watts is summoned; can’t be fixed in a single visit. But then, LeRoy is having a tough time, being blackmailed by Jerry Sparks, a former employee, and accidentally tasers him to death and hides the body in West Tisbury’s library’s book shed. There are scandals, a mysterious obscene caller, another murder, and an ecological quilting contest to come.
Ms. Riggs, a 13th-generation Islander, daughter of poet Dionis Riggs, runs a bed and breakfast catering to poets and writers in her 1700s family homestead, The Cleaveland House. She created and hosted a local television show, and has been a candidate for several West Tisbury town posts and served on Island and town boards, so she’s collected first-hand insights to the way the Island operates. Her authenticity is reflected on every page, making her writing rich with the eccentric and wonderful interactions Islanders take for granted.
The well-woven plots and subplots are character driven, and the series’s protagonists are all strong, independent, and resourceful women led by the 92-year old sleuth Victoria Trumbull (patterned after Ms. Riggs’s mother, active until her death at 98); Victoria’s granddaughter, dockmaster Elizabeth; and West Tisbury Police Chief Casey O’Neill.
In “Touch-Me-Not,” the women in a knitting group making a three-dimensional statement against global warming are being harassed by a heavy-breathing telephone caller. At the same time this is revealed, Victoria and Chief O’Neill are trying to track down the missing Mr. Sparks, only to realize there is a murder to solve.
And then there are the family issues that arise. For Victoria, it comes in the person of her daughter, Amelia (Elizabeth’s mother), who comes from California to see if Victoria is capable of independent living.
While the book is a quick read — Ms. Riggs’s wicked sense of humor plays well against her crafted moments of suspense — the characters own their moments. She has clearly honed her skills as an author, and does not rush the telling. It is well-paced, taking time for the nuances, quirky asides, and descriptions that draw in her readers:
“The air smelled of fresh green growth. A catbird mewed from the cedar tree. Four polka-dotted guinea fowl strutted past them, the hen calling out a tiresome, “Go back! Go back! Go back! Go back!” until Victoria hurled a clump of grass at her and the hen scurried off. Redwing blackbirds called. The honey bees from Neal Flynn’s hives hummed in the wisteria.”
One should know by now never to underestimate Ms. Riggs. Educated as a geologist, she taught at the Annapolis Sailing School, lived on a 44-foot houseboat for 12 years while running the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Boat Company, was a rigger at Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, and in her late 60s, she earned an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College, and has, in each ensuing year, produced one of the Vineyard-based, Victoria Trumbull mysteries. Well done.