In Print : A series of Island murders
"Death and Honesty," by Cynthia Riggs. Minotaur Books, 2009, 240 pp, hardcover, $23.95.
The latest Martha's Vineyard mystery in the popular series by West Tisbury's Cynthia Riggs will be released early in May. As always, the star is Victoria Trumbull, the nonagenarian poet and sleuth based on Dionis Coffin Riggs (1898-1997), Cynthia Riggs's talented and indomitable mother.
In a preface to "Death and Honesty," Ms. Riggs writes, "Victoria is very much alive to me, and I gather she is to you [her fans] too. She'll stay 92 forever, which she claims is her best year so far."
In response to a question from The Martha's Vineyard Times, Ms. Riggs acknowledged that Victoria has evolved a little over the course of several novels, "But not much. [My mother] was such a strong character. I had thought that Dionis would get diluted and Victoria would go her own way, but that hasn't happened."
This time the hanky-panky begins in the town hall, with three crooked assessors, whose names Ms. Riggs says are based on the harpies in Greek myth, and their weaseling clerk, who is also the tax collector. Add a wealthy former porn queen married to a nasty TV evangelist, a mysterious chauffer, and, of course, a few murders, and you're off down a twisting up-Island labyrinth full of puzzles, dead ends, and humorous surprises.
It should be noted that with few exceptions, the fictional West Tisbury in Ms. Riggs's novel is only superficially the same as the one where we live. For one thing, we have far fewer murders. Some of the geography is the same (the police station, the town hall, Alley's store, the names of major roads). A few characters are recognizable. For example, Mary Kathleen "Casey" O'Neill, the lady police chief who sometimes calls on Victoria's powers of detection, is pretty clearly based on Beth Toomey. But Ms. Riggs told The Martha's Vineyard Times that her characters are not intended to be real people with fictional names. "My books are not romans à clef," she says. It amuses her that none of her friends and acquaintances ever seem to see themselves in the villainous characters, but four or five will ask, confidentially, if they are not the source of the same positive character.
Those who know Ms. Riggs will recall that she has not been an admirer of the real West Tisbury assessors, and was herself once an unsuccessful candidate for the position on a platform of reform. Although her political opinions may underlie the germination of the story, the nefarious activities of the fictional assessors have nothing to do with her quarrel with the real appraisal system.
Non-gardeners may be surprised that Ms. Riggs's latest mystery does not at first glance seem to be following her custom of titling her books with the names of flowers ("Shooting Star," "The Paperwhite Narcissus," "Jack in the Pulpit," "Deadly Nightshade"). However, the reader soon learns that honesty is a flower too. The botanical name is Lunaria (it also goes by money plant, moonwort, satin flower, and silver dollar). That said, fans will not be at all surprised that the flower name in the title is given an ironic twist in the story. Victoria is warned that honesty, the flower, is an invasive plant, likely to spread where it's not wanted. She plants it anyway. Honesty, the virtue, is likely to be scarce in the fictional West Tisbury where crime and murder blossom. Not to worry: Victoria herself is honest to a fault.
Ms. Riggs's next novel, her ninth, will be titled "Touch-Me-Not."