A murderous itch on campus: Serial killing becomes an elective

A murderous itch on campus: Serial killing becomes an elective

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Fresh off the press: the author checks out her new book. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

“Poison Ivy” by Cynthia Riggs, paperback, 247 pages, copyright Cynthia Riggs 2013, $16.95 from Cleaveland House Books. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, at Edgartown Books, on Kindle, at Amazon, and at Island libraries.

“Poison Ivy” is the latest in an engaging series of mannerly murder mysteries, 11 in all, by West Tisbury’s Cynthia Riggs.

The novels are set on Martha’s Vineyard and feature Victoria Trumbull, a 92-year old West Tisbury poet, deputy sheriff, and amateur sleuth. How can this be: a 92-year old poet as the super-sleuth? Well, every definition of fiction I’ve seen includes the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief.” And that’s what happens here.

If you’ve read the Victoria Trumbull set, you understand how it happens. Mrs. Trumbull — Mrs. T to her friends — does that for the yarn. She uses the advantages of world wisdom and experience provided by her age to become a quietly powerful central figure in the novel. She operates seamlessly within normal physical limitations that 90 years of living exacts on us. And this being the Island, there is no shortage of strong backs to do the heavy lifting that occurs in a murder mystery.

Ms. Riggs has got that suspension of disbelief thing down. “Poison Ivy” trundles out a fanciful plotline that features just mountains of bodies found at Ivy Green, a three-building local college established 10 years ago somewhere just north of Franklin Street in Vineyard Haven.

Mrs. Trumbull has been brought on as an adjunct professor of poetry by Thackery Wilson, the dean and founder of Ivy Green. Mrs. Trumbull arrives on a late summer day for orientation. Discovery of a decomposing body in a lecture hall, unused during the summer, gives the term “orientation” a whole new meaning. And we’re off on a tale of uncontrolled ego, uncontrollable weather, and a clear view of life on this Island.

Ivy Green is Dean Wilson’s life passion. He’s built it hand over hand and defends it from the disdain of an off-Island oversight board of academics who missed the brass ring of success but perfected the arrogant part. Dean Wilson has a wicked big problem because, quick as you can say “Holmes Hole Road,” we are treated to the discovery of 10 more bodies of tenured professors on the campus grounds. Turns out nobody missed them. Several have been tenured underground long enough to have earned a sabbatical. And we begin a layered story so well done that readers will settle in and integrate comfortably with the cast.

Ms. Riggs has written a central character she believes in because she lived with her. Mrs. Trumbull is drawn from the character and personality of Ms. Riggs’s mother, Island poet Dionis Coffin Riggs, who lived to the age of 98 and was actively participating in her life until the end. Island author Tom Dresser includes Dionis Coffin Riggs’s story in his new book, “Women of Martha’s Vineyard.” In it, he quotes Ms. Riggs’s story of canoeing regularly with her mother on Tisbury Great Pond until six months before her death.

Ms. Riggs’s depiction of wacky, off-beat Island characters and Island venues is spot-on. A sort of Greek chorus of Islanders appears in front of Alley’s General Store from time to time, Red Man in cheek, to pass on the latest gossip on the investigation. As we know, the speed at which gossip travels here is breathtaking.

Ms. Riggs gets this Island. You might expect that, given she’s the 13th generation of her family to live here. But it’s the “mud of the place,” as Islander Susanna Sturgis called it in her debut novel of that name several years ago. Ms. Riggs’s locals convey an understanding that the laws of nature govern islands such as ours, where the citizens fight to protect the land and to protect themselves from the sea.

Her characters often seem bemused as they compare the often harsh reality of their world with the concerns that press off-Islanders. In “Poison Ivy,” academic tenure is the concern that drives the main plot and a significant subplot. Ms. Riggs did the research on real-world tenure practices bizarre enough to make the Mafia look gracious. Good stuff.

I’m thinking that this is a book with hidden threads that Islanders will see, but it also allows non-residents to better insight about two questions all us wash-ashores have asked: Who are these people, and what makes this place tick?

One other question: Why couldn’t there be a college here? We’ve got the firepower to teach — and tenure is no problem.