In Print

"Indian Pipes" by Cynthia Riggs

Well-crafted mystery set close to home

By Hermine Hull - August 17, 2006

"Indian Pipes," by Cynthia Riggs. St. Martin's Minotaur. 2006. $22.95. 256 pages.

There are many levels on which to enjoy Cynthia Riggs's latest mystery, "Indian Pipes." If you love the Vineyard it is great fun to read about familiar places, some not so familiar, and to try to guess who the characters might be. There is the twisting and turning plot of a good murder mystery. And there is prose, beautifully written, by a wonderful writer.

Cynthia Riggs is a thirteenth-generation Islander. She lives here year-round and runs a B&B and workshops for writers and poets in her family home, The Cleaveland House, in West Tisbury. So her stories have the feel of the Island. Her dirt roads lead to secret places and her characters seem familiar. Her detective, Victoria Trumbull, is clearly a paean to her mother, poet Dionis Coffin Riggs. Reading of Victoria's adventures, gestures, attitudes, and common sense, I vividly picture Mrs. Riggs as I remember her.

The basic plot involves Wampanoag tribal politics, the issue of casino gambling, a motorcycle rally held on the Island, and of course, a murder. That brings sibling rivalries and an inheritance into the mix. The characters are well drawn and colorful, their motives understandable. In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, reviewer Marilyn Stasio wrote, "People are so nice in West Tisbury that even the villains seem less than evil - more like seriously naughty."

But it is the prose that makes the book sing. Here is a description of Victoria and her granddaughter, Elizabeth, entering a house down on one of West Tisbury's south shore coves: "The entry was hung with coats and yellow slickers, a denim carpenter's apron, a couple of baseball caps. Three or four fishing rods, a kayak paddle, and a pair of oars were propped against the inner door, and a collection of lures, most of them old looking, lined a shelf. Spider webs festooned the ceiling, wedded the sleeve of one coat to another, strung the lines of the fishing rods together. The splintery wood floor, partially covered with a worn piece of linoleum, had a collection of hip boots, waders, and worn leather boots, their rusty eyelets laced with rawhide thongs, green with mold."

As the plot thickens, Victoria uses all her wiles and courage to trap the killer. While waiting, however, she is often found sitting quietly on a rock or against a tree trunk, writing poetry in her ever-present notebook. The development of her sestina, "a poem with six lines and a final triplet, all stanzas having the same six words at the line ends in six different sequences," according to my Oxford English Dictionary, weaves its way throughout the book. I felt disappointed never to be able to read the completed sestina and remain curious about its development, but I must remember that this is a work of fiction. Maybe there was no sestina.

As I read along, I never figured out who the murderer was, which to me, an inveterate murder mystery reader, is the mark of a good plot, so I was quite satisfied at the eventual denouement. Victoria and her collection of associate sleuths orchestrated an exciting ending. And I was grateful for a bout of insomnia, which gave me an extra few hours of middle-of-the-night reading time in this busy summer season. If you don't have insomnia, I am sure a beach chair or hammock will do just fine for a perfect summer afternoon with a good book like this one.