Cynthia Riggs writes up another murderous Island summer

—Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Victoria Trumbull is back, just in time for summer. The 92-year-old Martha’s Vineyard supersleuth, created by West Tisbury mystery author Cynthia Riggs, takes center stage in “Bloodroot,” the 11th in the murder mystery series set on the Island.

Mrs. Trumbull is a woman of many parts. For example, her knowledge of local flora is encyclopedic (though her kindly temperament would likely lead her to credit her author). But her particular specialty is solving murders.

The gimlet-eyed nonagenarian has been at it for 15 years, since publication in 2001 of “Deadly Nightshade,” her first adventure. Bodies have been hitting the deck, the floor, and the waters of Vineyard Sound ever since.

In “Bloodroot,” Victim No. 1 is Mildred Wilmington, a particularly rich and spectacularly unpleasant Island doyenne, who expires in her dentist’s chair while Victoria, a notorious weenie about dentist visits, sits in a nearby cubicle, awaiting care for a newly emerged wisdom tooth.

But it’s an ill wind that blows. Someone is up to no good, and the ensuing bedlam frees Victoria from the dental chair as staff and patients converge on Mrs. Wilmington. The dust has no sooner settled than the dental clinic’s receptionist is found floating facedown in Oak Bluffs Harbor.

So the scene is set. Whodunit? No lack of suspects. First, there are four grandchildren, three of whom are proven ne’er-do-wells who were summoned to Grand-Mère’s oceanfront estate in Chilmark just before her death. Then there are the clinic’s staff, most of whom actively loathed Mrs. Wilmington. The staff’s director, Dr. Horace Mann, is seen to have an odd relationship with the deceased. She was obsessed with him. In fact, she dropped in weekly, with cookies, for a chat.

The author’s artistry is in the unfolding of plot and subplots that wind back on themselves like the bittersweet vine that abounds here. Ms. Riggs throws in subtext that resonates of Island life. For example, the U.S. president is coming for an annual vacation, and local police are run ragged with preparations. Also, Mrs. Trumbull’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, is watching her own back for the reappearance of her psychotic and obsessive ex, restraining order notwithstanding.

The success of the Victoria Trumbull series, seems to me, is that Ms. Riggs tells her tales with nuance and detail that allow Island visitors to see how we act and feel. For residents, descriptions of scenes in these stories articulate the things we see on a daily basis and refreshes them for us.

She draws delicious characters from Island residents we all know, either as real people or as types. There is an impish side to Ms. Riggs’ writing that can provide a thoughtful nod or a belly laugh. Take the case of Dr. Horace Mann in “Bloodroot,” whose character is unlike his namesake. Horace Mann was a 19th century Massachusetts educator whose passion for providing public education led to the national development of public school systems.

Our Dr. Mann has a passion for deceit and womanizing, a pursuit which adds several twists to the plot. And when Mrs. Mann and Dr. Mann’s deceived girlfriend meet and put their heads together, their revenge is, well, like a root canal.

So like the pinkletinks, Victoria Trumbull has shown up for spring, and this puckish, worldly-wise Islander promises many more appearances. Ms. Riggs has promised us 20 books, and Victoria is certainly spry enough for the work.