Hyperion, 272 pp, $24.95
Since The Hungry Ocean, Linda Greenlaw's impressive writing debut, I have followed her career with mixed feelings. It was clear from her first book that she possessed an extraordinary bundle of unusual talents-achieving the status and responsibility of "highliner" sword-boat captain and then sitting down and writing engagingly about the experience-being the two most impressive abilities. But she mentioned more than once in her first book how hard it was for her to sit at the computer and string words together.
Subsequent books were no where near as exciting, informative and well-executed, though I thoroughly enjoyed and frequently use the cookbook she produced with her mother (Recipes from a Very Small Island). It began to seem that as a "property" with a multi-book contract, her publisher was leaning hard on a one book author.
Then Slipknot came along. As a first novel, it is thoroughly engaging and in some passages the writing is as good as or better than The Hungry Ocean mainly because she draws heavily on those same indelible experiences of working on the ocean.
The setting of the novel is a coastal Maine fishing village. The supporting characters are drawn from a file which must exist in her head under the title of "loveable eccentrics I have known" and the plot encompasses not only the who-dun-it aspect of any murder mystery, but involves social, economic and ecological issues as well. The plot is well-seated in the present in spite of the rural presumed back-water regionality.
Jane Bunker, Slipknot's sleuth is in retreat. Sick of the big city in general and departmental politics in particular, she has quit her job as an police investigator and hired on with a marine insurance company in the town of Green Haven, Maine where her family's clan of Bunkers once held sway.
There are plenty of claims to investigate as the fishing industry is in steep decline and vessel maintenance is haphazard but before she can concentrate on the job she's being paid to perform, a body is found floating in the tide. Her police-investigator training kicks in and she's off on the trail. Investigations of fraudulent marine insurance claims give her cover for her snooping and are nicely woven into the solution of the crime.
In the course of her investigation of the death of the man most folks consider the town drunk, Bunker unravels a gnarly plot involving an invasive species of crab, federal environmental prohibitions and a proposed wind farm that promises to make big money for various Green Haven citizens.
A budding love interest is derailed when the handsome fisherman falls under suspicion of attempting to murder our heroine as well as the original victim. Greenlaw draws poignant portraits of two teen-age boys, one abused, one adored, who contribute to the crime's eventual solution. But the best writing in the book occurs in descriptions of being at sea during a raging storm. It's bad enough for the crew topside but our heroine his hiding in the bilge, forced to stow away when the boat takes off in the night or be caught snooping. Kirkus got it right when their reviewer wrote, "Greenlaw writes the best storm sequence this side of Hammond Innes and you could build a boat from her description of its innards." Greenlaw may have finally discovered her writing comfort zone in fiction. Slipknot is a fun winter read.