Book notes: “The Silver Boat” and “The Illusion of Murder”

“The Silver Boat” by Luanne Rice, Pamela Dorman Books, April 5, 2011. 304 pp. $25.95. Available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.

I believe my wife would love this book, the 29th published by Ms. Rice. Although Ms. Rice lives in Connecticut, this one’s about the Vineyard, the parts of it she has experienced and loves: the sunrises and sunsets, the eternal ocean, the beaches, flowers, stones, stores, people…and about love and heartache, especially that of women for men who are derelict, running away, wasteful and wasting.

Most of the book takes place on the Island as three sisters experience the dragged-out agony of having to leave – permanently – their Chilmark home where they grew up. It’s a traumatic experience other Vineyarders have suffered – their matriarch has died, the family money is gone, the taxes are eating up what remains – and their beloved father, an archetype in his own way, sailed away years ago on his self-built boat to Ireland. But he hasn’t returned. And the buyers have arrived with their architect who plans to level the loved old house and build a mansion.

Some other males appear in the tale: Andy, a hunky bachelor builder, who has dreamy pornographic sex with the sister Dar, who drives most of the narrative. She’s an artist who does graphic novels about “Dulse,” a fairy creature based on herself and named after a nutritious seaweed.

The three sisters are also fond of a guy they grew up with named Harrison, who, in another Vineyard trope, descended from a wealthy father who gambled all the family money away, and who now lives in a large storage unit at the airport, and is a Man with a Van, who earns pot and alcohol money by delivering valued objects, mostly musical instruments, no dump-runs though. The author says that Harrison is based on a real friend.

If the girls’ father had been able to prove a Vineyard land-claim, they would not have to leave the Island. So, all three fly to Ireland, hoping to trace their father’s footsteps.

I won’t tell you what happens. But for the first part of the book they enjoy the Vineyard – the parts tourists see, including Mad Martha’s, but without heavy traffic, ticks, or poison ivy – and being emotionally tortured. Oh, the agony, it hurts so good!

Despite the agony, love wins out.

“The Illusion of Murder” by Carol McCleary, Forge Books, April 12, 2011. 352 pp. $24.99. Available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore and Edgartown Books.

I learned about pioneer female investigative reporter Nellie Bly (pen name for Elizabeth Jane Cochran) in a history of journalism class. She convincingly faked insanity in New York City in the 1880s, and was committed by a court to an institution for the mad. It was a veritable snake-pit of horrors and abuse. She endured it for about 10 days after which Joseph Pulitzer, her publisher at The World newspaper, got her freed.

Nellie’s resulting book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House” was a best-seller and caused institutional reforms.

She was bold, about five feet short, pretty, and dark-haired. Nellie next undertook to beat author Jules Verne at his own game; he had published “Around the World in 80 Days” and she told Pulitzer she could beat that record. He thought it was too great a challenge for a woman, but she did it.

Author Carol McCleary has added adventures and mysteries to Nellie’s history. Her first novel, “The Alchemy of Murder” (reviewed in the Times on May 13, 2010) followed Nellie to Paris for the World’s Fair, where she stops a serial murderer and terrorist. Fortunately, she has aid from author Jules Verne and wit from Oscar Wilde.

This new novel picks up Nellie in Egypt, already en-route on a really well-researched and reported trip against time; she witnesses the apparent murder of a fellow traveler. As he lies dying, he passes her a trinket – a scarab – and mutters a word: Amelia. Strangely enough, no one else in her crew of fellow travelers has seen the murder; they seem to believe that the murdered man is still alive.

The plot thickens after that. Nellie endures subsequent attacks and near-fatalities from an invisible opponent. Or more than one.

However, her pluck wins out, again with help from a few famous folks, one of which is the great actress and libertine Sarah Bernhardt (“a living goddess”) whose scandalous love affair fuels the plot to which Nellie is an unwilling witness and amateur detective, and a famous African big-game hunter whose embrace Nellie craves.

Nellie’s trip is multi-faceted: trying to solve the mystery of the murdered man, fighting off would-be seducers and the chauvinistic comments of the men who surround her.

As Nellie’s ship sails into San Francisco, she is barely on-schedule, but is greeted by cheering crowds. Pulitzer commissions a train to bring her to the east coast, and she makes her target date, in advance of Verne’s 80 days. But she also solves the mysteries that plagued her trip, and uncovers the secret identities of quite a few of the other passengers — a nest of spies working against each other to conceal or reveal the identity that would if revealed, shake the British Empire.

I can’t wait for the next novel about Nellie’s adventures.

Carol McCleary is a world traveler who lives not far from the Vineyard, on Cape Cod. Don Hinkle, who has traveled very little, lives in Oak Bluffs and works for The Times.