Like everyone, I’ve been practicing social distancing and mostly staying home, but that’s par for an introvert and a writer, both of which I am. I’m a voracious reader normally, and now is no different. I wish I could say I’ve been reading deep literary fiction or serious nonfiction, but that would be a rarity. No, my go-to reading is mostly popular, genre fiction—mystery, thriller, or the genre I write, romantic suspense. Recently, I’ve read all three, but here are two mysteries I can recommend to those of you looking for something new to read. It’s said that plot is the events in a novel, while story is about how the plot events affect the protagonist, and how he or she changes or grows as a result. Both of these novels are prime examples of that.
The first of my recommendations is a mystery, but Maine’s Paul Doiron’s STAY HIDDEN is also a page-turning thriller. Doiron is the award-winning author of eleven mysteries. He’s Editor Emeritus of Down East: The Magazine of Maine, having served as editor in chief from 2005 to 2013, before stepping down to write full time. This is book nine in his series featuring Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch.
In STAY HIDDEN, Mike is on his first assignment as a warden investigator. He’s been sent to investigate the death of a woman visiting an isolated island off the Maine coast. Whether the death was an accidental shooting by a deer hunter or murder is the initial question, and the fog that traps Mike on the island only increases the mysteries piled on mysteries. Employing his knowledge of small-town and coastal Maine life, Doiron has created an island that is cold and wet, impoverished, overrun by starving deer, ticks (eeuw), and Lyme disease—and populated by warring factions and a fascinating cast of believable characters. It seemed to me that Mike is always wet and cold and in danger of drowning or being attacked. I held my breath several times. Unpredictable twists both make him a target of the elusive killer and lead him to the answer. Remember plot vs story? The story events and challenges to Mike Bowditch motivate him to prove himself as a warden investigator and to change in other ways he hadn’t considered before. I couldn’t put this book down.
Another book I read late into the night is next. Barbara Neely’s first book in her ground-breaking Blanche White series, BLANCHE ON THE LAM, won the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards. Neely, who passed away this March at age 78 after a long illness, grew up in Pennsylvania and lived in several other states, among them North Carolina, the setting for the Blanche White novels. She was a social activist by the time she was nineteen, when she helped organize a tutorial program in Philadelphia. Later in North Carolina, she wrote for Southern Exposure magazine.
I am in the middle of BLANCHE ON THE LAM, but I’m already hooked on Blanche, the writing, and Blanche’s story. When this book was first published in 1992, few mysteries featured African-American sleuths (Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins comes to mind), and none featured a plump, feisty, middle-aged African-American housekeeper.
Blanche White (get it?) is a smart black woman in North Carolina who works as a housekeeper/cook in rich white people’s homes. An unlikely sleuth, indeed. When an employer doesn’t pay her, a judge sentences her to 30 days in jail for writing bad checks. She manages to slip away from the courthouse and hides out as housekeeper/cook in a wealthy family’s summer home in the country. When there’s a murder, Blanche must solve it to save her own skin. Blanche has savvy, a sharp wit, and a biting sense of humor about the southern white gentry. The ever-present issues of race give this book an edge, subtly and with humor, about the connections between white employers and employees of color. I can’t say yet how the plot will affect the story of changes in Blanche until I finish the book. But I’m betting I’ll purchase the next in the series asap.
And just FYI, the e-book of Never Surrender, in my Task Force Eagle romantic suspense series, is free on Amazon starting Friday, May 22, and ending May 26. Here’s a brief description. When a charming DEA agent has a lead in Maine to the cartel that killed his brother, his vanished suspect’s loyal sister refuses to cooperate. Threats force her to accept the agent’s protection, and their search leads them into deadly danger and each other’s arms.