I saw several things Susan did with great skill. Obviously she knows the low country, its culture, its people, and its food—some of which made me very hungry. Boyer created a small island community not far from Charleston, SC, called Stella Maris, which rings so true as a place that I searched on Google to see if it’s real. There are a lot of businesses (notably recovery centers, which is a puzzle) named Stella Maris but, alas, no such island community. Yet Boyer made it seem a real place, as though you could drive the streets, find the marina, eat and the local restaurant and have a drink at the local pub. And the people who inhabit Stella Maris are characters, from her father who can play southern redneck when it suits him, to her godmother, Grace, a grand southern belle. Liz Talbot, the protagonist, is a P.I., returned from Charleston to solve the unexplained death of her grandmother, and she keeps getting crossways with her older brother, Blake, who is the local chief of police.
Normally I’m not much drawn to the paranormal in a mystery but Boyer uses a spirit effectively for both plot and comic relief. Colleen was Liz’s best friend, but she drowned at seventeen. Now she reappears, insisting she is neither an angel nor a ghost but a guardian spirit on assignment to protect the island of Stella Maris. This of course sometimes puts Liz in a difficult spot, since she’s the only one who can see and hear Colleen, though godmother Grace, known for the psychic ability she claims, declares one day that she could swear there is someone else at the lunch table with them. Occasionally Colleen speaks out of turn, and Liz forgets herself, telling her aloud to shut up. In one semi-romantic scene, the man she’s with thinks she’s saying that to him.
There are other moments of high comedy, Perhaps one of the funniest occurs when Blake assigns an officer to watch his family while a killer, target unknown, is loose on the island. But the deputy gets a call about a body in a marsh, and the only thing he can think of to do is load the whole family, including Basset Hound Chumley, into the car and head for the crime scene. Blake’s reaction is comedy at its best. Liz’s mother epitomizes the southern belle, fixing luscious blueberry pancakes and chicken and dumplings for her family, running the local church bazaar, and admonishing her daughters that everything will be fine if they will put on fresh lipstick.
Sounds like a light cozy, doesn’t it? It is and it isn’t. Amidst all the atmosphere, there is much tension, moments of real danger for Liz and others she cares about, and some deaths. For a bit I thought this verged on being a thriller, because Liz knew who the killer was and it became a game of find him before he can strike again. But even P.I.s make mistakes!
Well done, Susan Boyer, and worthy of its awards.