Murder afloat

Murder on C-Dock by Cynthia Riggs-Attebery, copyright 2015 Cynthia Riggs-Attebery, from Cleaveland House Books. Softcover, 201 pages. $19.95 at Island book stores.

You remember Victoria Trumbull, the 92-year old Island native and sleuth, the chief protagonist of a dozen books in Cynthia Riggs-Attebery’s long-running mystery novel series.

Murder on C-Dock is a complete change of pace from the dowager detective, though it contains the same twists and turns of Ms. Riggs’s murder mystery style. This offering is a chillingly fun read that introduces us to Persie Lee Butler, a 40-something Smithsonian researcher who lives aboard a houseboat in a tidal basin yacht club hard by the Capitol area in Washington, D.C.

Like Ms. Campbell, Persie Lee finds deadly trouble easily and has a nose for finding the answers. In this case, venal and roundly loathed yacht club commodore Carnegie Dunn turns up dead. He’ll have plenty of company sleeping with the fishes before we’re done in the fast-paced tale with quirky characters who live aboard boats in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Persie Lee character also provides an insight into Ms. Riggs-Attebery’s life. In fact, Ms. Riggs-Attebery did work for the Smithsonian several decades ago and did, in fact, live on a houseboat in D.C. for 12 years.

In introductory notes accompanying the review copy, Ms. Riggs-Attebery notes that Murder on C-Dock was an early writing project from that time in her life, undertaken as a result of urging from fellow live-aboards at her dock.

“So that’s how it started,” she writes. “I got dragooned into it. I didn’t think I could turn out a book. Writing a book seemed like a colossal task, like knitting a sweater or worse. But the pages piled up and the story evolved and I put in all the dock people I loved and the ones I didn’t love and killed off the ones I hated, including the commodore.

“Like most first books, it was unpublishable. I did get an agent who couldn’t sell it. I revised it and revised it and revised it again.”

Recently, at her Island Wednesday Writers group, she was urged to give it another go. The result is a terrific read, seamlessly updated from an era in which cellphones and Blue Moon beer didn’t exist. Good job.

Okay, okay, back to Murder on C-Dock. This book contains a great set of lively characters who would serve well as the basis for a mystery series.

There’s Dojan Minnowfish, an Aquinnah Wampanoag who’s been banished by tribal elders for some spectacularly unsavory behavior to Washington, D.C., the worst place they could think of, Persie Lee notes wryly. Dojan serves as tribal liaison to the Bureau of Indian Affairs but spends most of his time saving Persie Lee’s bacon.

There’s Smitty, an African-American harbor policeman, whose laconic, practical style is reminiscent of Up-Island fisherfolk today, and mysterious college professor Ed Hunt, possessor of a checkered past similar to Dojan’s.

As the murders and boat-burnings pile up, we see layers of personalities emerge and the secrets of live-aboards laid bare. Ms. Riggs-Attebery’s characters wrestle with grown-up stuff involving not only murder, but also incest, gay and lesbian partners dealing with homophobia, the corrosive effect of buried secrets, and revenge-seeking.

Murder on C-Dock immerses us in a subset of D.C. life that is far different than most of us imagine actually exists. Ms. Riggs-Attebery’s characters are crisp and distinct and funky. They serve as an unexpected social counterpoint to our image of a gray D.C. corporate and government bureaucracy.

As you know, we don’t reveal plot endings in these book reports, but I’ll tell you I had no clue whodunit until the tale was fully told.

I liked Persie Lee, her lifestyle, and her gaggle of memorable friends. I hope she embarks on another watery adventure.