Jean Stone’s newest edition in her Vineyard series, “A Vineyard Wedding,” welcomes us back into famous mystery writer and inn owner Annie Sutton’s life with the wry wit of the opening lines: “It was the ugliest wedding dress Annie had ever seen. Which she knew was ridiculous, because all wedding dresses were beautiful, weren’t they? Like newborn babies and puppies and kittens?”
Initially, the unattractive dress and impending wedding to her fiancé, the supremely likable Detective Sergeant John Lyons, is Annie’s most pressing issue … if you didn’t count the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, and sorting out who would be coming from her extended Chappy family — who have become integral to her world. Stone deftly lays out each of the major players and their relationship to one another, and also their backstories so that you don’t necessarily have to read previous novels in the series to understand their implications in this book’s plot.
However, almost immediately there are ominous signs of impending danger. A mysterious, rather imposing man named Rex appears. Taciturn to downright rude, it turns out he’s the brother of Taylor, one of the members of Annie’s adopted family. His return to the Island on which he grew up hints of troubled waters ahead. Other clues include the single-page chapters interspersed between the action that are written in the anonymous voice of someone who is clearly planning to do something worrisome. The character acknowledges that he or she is glad to be in a remote, isolated area, saying, “Not that it matters. I won’t be here very long. And then I won’t ever have to come back,” and later on, “Sometimes, though, I wonder what I’m doing here, and why I feel so compelled to do this.”
Soon the horrible “this” happens. Annie’s world and everyone else’s crashes down when well-loved 2-year-old Bella goes missing. Although now mothered by another, Bella had been left in a basket as a tiny baby on Annie’s doorstep in a storm. She now belongs very much to the collective “family,” and hence the devastation at her abduction. An anonymous note left on Annie’s porch says the toddler is safe, but police from across the Island, and friends and neighbors, come together to comb the vast beaches and landscape in fear that the little girl has come to harm.
Annie immediately pushes aside plans for the wedding, as well as sundry other duties and decisions, as she participates in the frantic search effort, which is hindered by a bad snowstorm. Annie’s head is full of suspects. There is seemingly timid Rose, one of the year-round tenants in Annie’s inn who is inexplicably afraid of Rex, and disappears from Chappy without a trace. There’s Abigail, John’s older daughter, who perhaps would stop at nothing to disrupt the wedding plans of her father and Annie, whom she intensely dislikes. As the search goes on, others appear to have a possible motive for kidnapping Bella. Stone writes, “It often amazed Annie how people were rarely as others perceived them, that everyone had layers of stories filled with good and evil, twists and turns.”
Although she knows she shouldn’t, Annie takes things into her own hands, investigating hunches and not immediately informing the police. Stone writes that Annie acts “as if she were her fiancé and not merely a civilian with an unfortunate tendency to find trouble.” And she does indeed find trouble.
While Stone always includes a mystery in all her plots, she builds an urgency into “A Vineyard Wedding” that makes for compelling reading, as we are caught up in the rush to find Bella, since each day that passes increases the likelihood of a more dire outcome.
In her inimitable way, Stone embeds her tale in the exacting details of the Island — with its ferry schedule, restaurants, local roads, and much more, thus immersing us in the community as though we were watching events unfold around us. For Stone, who lived on the Island for several years, community is, in fact, a central theme. She says about the inspiration for her plot, “Actually, COVID inspired the storyline. Watching how a crisis (whether a pandemic or a missing child) can bring people together in a caring way, I wanted to show that Islanders do that — have always done that — for one another. That the Vineyard truly is a community of neighbors helping neighbors.”
Jean Stone will talk about her book at the Aquinnah library on Thursday, July 21, at 5 pm; Edgartown library on Saturday, August 6, at 10:30 am, and at Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Thursday, August 21, at 4 pm.
“A Vineyard Wedding” by Jean Stone, $15.95. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, and online.