Review: Deadly Nightshade

Written by Cynthia Riggs
Published by Signet Books, 2003

She stood up to see better, holding the back of the deck chair. She could feel the same thrill she’d felt as a girl. She hadn’t been here for more than a half century. Surely it wasn’t three-quarters of a century? A century had once seemed an eternity. Now she’d almost lived through that eternity. How short a time it had been! . . . She could see the tree line beyond the big house, stunted scrub oak and pine. It looked exactly like the tree line of her childhood. She recalled two large trees that rose above the other trees, their configuration looking like an elephant. . . . The elephant was still there, unchanged. The island was enchanted. Time had stopped for it, while she continued to pass through days and months and years. [p. 108]

Cynthia Riggs’s Deadly Nightshade is the first book in her series of mystery novels centered around Victoria Trumbull, a 92-year-old poet who lives with her 30-something granddaughter Elizabeth, on Martha’s Vineyard. The book begins with Victoria hearing a scream and a splash in the water. She investigates, along with Elizabeth and the harbormaster (Elizabeth’s boss), and discovers a dead body floating in the harbor. Of course, she has to get involved and eventually manages to help solve the mystery, trap the killer, and see that everyone gets his or her comeuppance. And all the while, she still manages to take in the sunsets, work on her poetry, and cook her traditional Saturday night baked bean suppers for guests. What a gal!

Seriously, Victoria is a wonderful creation – intelligent and fun-loving and feisty (do you have to be over 80 to be “feisty”?), she’s very believable and (as the blurb says) “unforgettable.” Unfortunately, I can’t say that about the rest of the characters or the plot. Not a terrible book, just not very remarkable.

The story seemed a bit trite (local fiscal corruption with a little drug trafficking thrown in), and didn’t really make much use of the Martha’s Vineyard locale – as far as I could tell, it could have been set in Corpus Christie or Nags Head or any other beach community. The characters, aside from Victoria, were mostly just unattractive and annoying. I’m not sure what we were supposed to make of Victoria’s admiration for Domingo, the harbormaster – she seemed to think his manner was “courtly” even though he treated her granddaughter like a lackey and addressed all women as “sweetheart” or “you.” And, aside from curiosity, there really wasn’t any compelling reason for Victoria to get involved in solving the murder in the first place.

I suppose I was expecting the book to be more of a “cozy” – that’s how it’s advertised. But I think a lot of elements kept it from qualifying as a traditional cozy mystery. For one thing, some of the violence was a little too gruesome for a cozy. And some characters who turn out to be important to the plot aren’t introduced until midway through the book. Also, I found the presence of the harbormaster character a little off-putting. Domingo is an ex-NYC police detective, and therefore about as hard-boiled as you can get. He’s definitely not cozy material, and his prominence brings aspects of police procedural to the story that aren’t very appropriate to the cozy genre.

OK – I guess I’ve made my point that the book didn’t live up to my expectations. Even so, it wasn’t one of those books I dislike so much I can’t finish them. It was a nice fast, relaxing read – probably would be perfect for the beach. And, while I’ve never been to the Vineyard, I love Cape Cod, so a mystery series set in that part of the world is a welcome discovery. Although I might not try another book in this series right away, I can’t say I’ll never return to it – the character of Victoria is so attractive, I think it would be only right to give her a second chance. After all, aside from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books, how many mystery novels are likely to feature heroines older than I am?

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