THE BEE BALM MURDERS: A Martha’s Vineyard Mystery. By Cynthia Riggs. Minotaur Books, 2011. 304 pages. $24.99 hardcover.
To stay 92 forever isn’t ex actly the fountain of youth. Yet our famed Island mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, far younger herself, has produced the 10th entry in her Victoria Trumbull series, this one called The Bee Balm Murders, and her protagonist, elderly poet, gardener, deputy police officer and amateur sleuth, continues to be the nonagenarian she was in the debut novel, Deadly Nightshade. And you know what? Ms. Riggs makes 92 look like the age to which we all might aspire.
Evelyn Waugh wrote about P.G. Woodhouse’s books, “[His] idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
Ms. Riggs with her mysteries, all of which feature a poisonous specimen of flora or fauna in her titles and plots, widens her fan base with readers who love to wander in Victoria Trumbull’s world. Oh, Victoria’s aches and pains sometimes catch up with her. When she kneels to harvest potatoes in her vegetable garden, she pulls herself up by her rake handle. In Bee Balm Murders, she finds an engorged deer tick on her stomach and, sure enough, the bull’s eye rash that we all live in fear of, develops. The aged detective is further hampered by a debilitating course of antibiotics. And yet we trust that she’s still on her game.
A sideline and embellishment to the story is the installation on Victoria’s West Tisbury acres of seven bee hives, all of them managed by Sean McBride, professional beekeeper. We learn on the first page, “Each hive had twenty thousand bees. Each of the twenty thousand bees had a specific job to perform for the hive. During its short life, each of the nectar-gathering bees produced an eighth of a teaspoon of honey. And each lived only two weeks, its wings worn out from forays in search of nectar-bearing blossoms.”
Can you stop reading with an introduction as engrossing as that one? You cannot!
Meanwhile, Ms. Riggs has assembled a cast of characters more colorful and diverse than any she has placed before us in the past, and this is over and above the twenty thousand bees times seven. First there is Orion Nanopoulos, a new boarder with an ingenious plan to embed a fiber-optic cable clear across the Island. Right away a dead body turns up in one of his muddy trenches: It’s Angelo Vulpone, a potential investor in Orion’s company and, just incidentally, an alleged mob boss.
Victoria takes an immediate dislike to vampy, middle-aged Dorothy Roche, who’s renting a fancy, sterile captain’s house on North Water street in Edgartown. Everyone is “darling” to Dorothy, and she wears too much perfume. We know from our long association with the all-natural Victoria that manufactured scents — cologne, hair spray, fancy hand-milled soaps — put her at a distance from the character who wafts them through the rooms.
It looks as if Dorothy is trying to horn in on Orion’s project, and so is her fat, nasty, foul-mouthed boyfriend — and brother to the corpse in the trench — Basilio Vulpone, a producer of vampire movies. There is also a young investor-wannabe, Finney Solomon, whose resume is more padded than a UPS-shipped Ming vase. We dislike him immediately when he’s newly arrived on Island, fetched at the ferry by Dorothy’s chauffeur, and never once does he glance up from his laptop as he’s whisked along the causeway, Nantucket Sound on his left, Sengekontacket on his right.
The dead man’s sons show up, Primo and Umberto, hoping to enlist Victoria to find their dad’s killer. Are they as prince-charming wholesome as they seem, or are they maneuvering to take over Angelo’s crime syndicate?
We have some off-Island scenes of Basilio’s wife, Maria Rosa and the “infidelity specialist” she hires to find out why her unpleasant husband often goes missing. When she learns the answer, we’re pulling for her to let him go all-the-way missing.
And then there are the recurring roles we’ve come to love: Casey the chief-of-police and Victoria’s best friend just down the road; Elizabeth, our sleuth’s doting niece, and all the Vineyard folk encountered along the way; just like all of us who live here year-round, Ms. Trumbull knows everyone else who lives here year-round. In Bee Balm Murders, however, it seems to be the washashores doing all the harm. Plus the bees: Victoria’s affable tenant and new best friend, Orion, is allergic to them. He has an EpiPen in the glove compartment of his old car.
Ms. Riggs has a talent for summing up a character in a tidy, impression-stamping paragraph: “She watched as a white-haired, mustached, deeply tanned man climbed out. In his 50s, perhaps, but she wasn’t good at ages. The man gave the side of his car a pat, as though it was a horse that had delivered him safely to her door. His trim body and mustache gave him the look of a cavalry officer; at least from the front. When he turned, his long, white ponytail altered the effect. He was wearing jeans, an open-necked short-sleeved blue shirt and worn, highly polished engineer’s boots.”
Oh-oh. A pony tail? In the movies, that invariably signals a bad guy. Will Orion be an exception? And what about his permanently pleasant expression — could that mask something deeper and darker?
In the Victoria Trumbull mysteries, the plot twists and character revelations keep coming. Open this new saga with a caveat: You’ll be winched to your chair until you finish. Make sure you have plenty of snacks on hand and favorite beverages.
Cynthia Riggs is a 13th generation Islander who lives on her family’s homestead which she runs as a bed and breakfast, catering to poets and writers. She has a degree in geology from Antioch College and a master’s degree in creative writing from Vermont College. A descendent of sea captains, she herself holds a U.S. Coast Guard Master’s License.
The Bee Balm Murders is available at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, Edgartown Books, and The Secret Garden in Oak Bluffs.