“The Bee Balm Murders” by Cynthia Riggs. Thomas Dunne Book for Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Publishing, April 2011. 291 pp. $24.99.
The caper — who killed big time Brooklyn construction company owner Angelo Vulpone and left him face down in a muddy trench in the ball field across from Tisbury Printers — is filled with plot intricacies and wonderfully eccentric, yet somehow familiar, characters.
In her 10th and latest Victoria Trumball murder mystery, “The Bee Balms Murders,” West Tisbury author Cynthia Riggs paints a picture of Island life with a sharply pointed small brush, and places mayhem in its midst.
A 13th generation Islander, Ms. Riggs is a fine translator of all things Vineyard. She knows Island rhythms and customs, and expresses them in captivating details.
The book includes scores of Island references — both to specific places, and to the Vineyard’s idiosyncratic history, customs, and procedures: How quickly rumors spread, summer people who stroll down the middle of Beach Road holding up traffic, and that the Steamship Authority requires a passenger ticket for transporting deceased. Everything is grounded in a wealth of factual information — everything from beekeeping to fiber optics to engineering — that gives the lively story solid grounding.
As in Ms. Riggs’ other books, the protagonist is the 92-year-old part-time columnist, poet, and West Tisbury sleuth Victoria Trumball, patterned after the author’s esteemed late mother, poet Dionis Riggs.
This time out, the focus broadens to revolve around a New York contingent of connected people who connive and conspire to claim the millions anticipated from a fiber optic cable company that’s being established on the Island.
Despite Victoria’s attempts to discourage the company’s co-owner and manager, Orion Nanopoulos, from renting a room in her bed and breakfast — the doors don’t shut, the floors creak, there’s a hornets’ nest above the window, there’s no TV and no insulation in the room — he becomes her tenant and eventually her friend.
Victoria is drawn in to the action when Nanopoulos’ major New York investor winds up murdered and left in a trench where the fiber optic cable is being installed. Even though State Police take over the case, her reputation as a West Tisbury deputy police officer has preceded her, and she is hired by the sons of the deceased to find their father’s murderer.
And still, she has to attend to the complaint about a noisy party on Lambert’s Cove and another about an even noisier rooster.
Threaded through the murder mystery as generously as keep-and-save shells on the beach are assorted characters that either contribute directly to the intrigue or simply ornament the story. Each, no matter how quirky, has depth and believability. Among them are: Donald Minnowfish, antiquities officer for the Wampanoags, who insists that laying cable anywhere on the Island constitutes an excavation that requires tribal permits; Dorothy Roche, a flamboyant, aging, and dangerous diva; Finney Solomon, an ambitious wheeler-dealer from Brooklyn; and Tris Waverley, Ms. Trumball’s very suspicious new neighbor. The plot intensifies as, gradually, characters are revealed as not being who they seem.
The plot reaches its climax at a summer’s end auction for Island charities that involves celebrities and offers all sorts of unusual first-person experiences for bids. Trip Barnes is the auctioneer, who goads the bids high and higher — all for a good cause. But sound and fury erupts among some of the attendees whose nerves have been stretched, and the auction becomes a highly charged scene of tempers and accusations.
While there are insinuations about this and that person, readers are not let in on who the real culprits are until everything is finally revealed at the end of the book.
As layered as things become — adultery, fraud, another murder, and one attempted murder — the story moves along quickly and entertainingly, with logical progression.
With “The Bee Balm Murders,” Ms. Riggs has not just done it again; she’s done it again with more fun and finesse than ever. Readers are likely to find “Bee Balm Murders” difficult to put down.
Ms. Riggs will speak this Saturday, March 12, in between 2 and 4 pm at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven as part of ACE MV’s afternoon with local authors. For more information, call 508-693-2291.