- by Carol Standish
Now that we're all deeply into the dark season, who could resist reading a book called The Dead of Winter (Down East Books; 349pp; $22.95)? Of course, its a whodunit. Even better, the novel is set in an island village downeast which has lost power and ferry service due to a recent blizzard. Author, David Crossman, a native of Vinalhaven, seems to be fictionally recalling his growing up years by creating a place called Penobscot Island and a time back in the 1970s when "the way life should be" was closer to the truth.
The community he depicts is intricately interwoven. Everybody knows one another and who their grandfather's first wife was related to. "Folks are family out here, whether they like it or not. Even the ones who move here from away eventually earn a grudging bastard-child brand of acceptance," observes one crusty native. Into this idyllic scene, Crossman throws a very bizarre murder which sets the village buzzing. Fortunately Winston Crisp, a retiree from away is just the man to solve the case.
Crisp looks "Jimmy Stewart's grandfather." He spent his working life as a National Security Agency operative. Over time he has earned a tad more than grudging acceptance. Most of the islanders refer to him as "the professor" partly because of his advanced age (he's in his eighties), partly because his career sleuthing for the government has kept mind sharp as a tack and partly because he has recently solved another island murder in Crossman's first Crisp book, A Show of Hands (Down East Books; 287pp; $14.95).
The victim, in The Dead of Winter, Johann Berman, is also an off-islander, a long ago summer person with a clouded family history. Berman's father, a German immigrant, left Penobscot Island during World War I because of the hostile suspicions of the natives. "Everybody" thought he was a spy. The family never returned. So why, after a lifetime away, would Johann return in the dead of winter just in time to be murdered.?
Speculation is rife among the islanders. Every move made by the major players-the coroner Gammidge (from the mainland), Doc Pagitt, constable Luther Kingsbury (a bit of a dim bulb), or Crisp and his gofers, Stumpy Hutchins and Leeman Russell is exactingly picked apart at various local gathering places. The reader gets many viewpoints and a lot of Island history. In fact, a great deal of the "action" is furthered in the hardware store, the Island Grocery, the beauty parlor and Buddy's Come n' Get It.
The device serves both as a smoke screen-leading the reader into a maze of dead ends-as well as an amusing way of plumping up the novel by involving us with the denizens of Penobscot Island. Furthermore, our hero, Crisp, spends most of the novel in bed recovering from a near death encounter experienced while solving the last murder, so the islanders keep things lively while he does the thinking.
In The Dead of Winter, Crossman has pushed his prose and taken more stylistic risks than in his first Crisp book, producing a colorful and lively story. The book is full of quaint phrases "he's not from Mongolia's backside, you know" and charming observations, "Matty, feeling like a cat that had just had its belly rubbed, descended the stairs with a smile." Crossman reaches for strong and unusual physical descriptions of his people and the island. The novel opens "The storm that had been threatening all day finally broke, as if someone had run a filet knife along the bulging underbelly of the thick black clouds." Ominous, eh? The Dead of Winter is a fun read, thankfully bereft of all the gory stuff, just right for curling up with by the fire on a cold dark night.