(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 20, 2007)
“Nick was a good enough guy, even though he did irritate folks. He has a knack for pissing people off, but not to the point of homicide. Has a long history of getting liquored up at night when he’s not offshore.” The level of intoxication might account for the number of belt loops he missed while threading the old piece of rope around his waist, I thought. Perhaps threading a belt should be part of a roadside sobriety tests."
She has only lived in Green Haven, Maine three days when a dead body is found on the shore by the Turner’s Fish Plant. Jane Bunker stumbles upon Cal Dunham who is crouched over the dead body of Nick Dow. An early riser, Jane is here to get a head start on her first marine investigator job, wanting to avoid witnesses to her “learn as you go” style. Cal mistakes her for the Turner’s insurance inspector, and assumes she’s been called on the job to assess the company’s liability. Jane doesn’t correct the mistake, hoping to gain more insight into this body, and this town. After all, Jane is an ex-Miami detective and this is second nature.
When Cal begins to speak, she quickly realizes that Cal isn’t telling her about the victim but is only offering an alibi, or as she comments, “The covering of one’s own butt is powerful incentive while standing over a dead body.” Ginny Turner, the fish plant’s owner, is next on the scene, or at least, she’s on the dock above, “clearly not the most complimentary angle for a woman of such girth,” and then the self-proclaimed harbormaster, half-wit and busybody Clydie comes along the beach to inspect the body. The last to the scene is the “ambulance” (really just an old bread truck with two high school kids as drivers) and the Hancock County Sheriff. All conclude that the town drunk must have accidentally fallen off the dock and thus bashed his head.
Jane proceeds with her inspection of the plant, keeping an eye out for any information that might actually show her more about these townspeople, especially the dead one. Jane thinks that the degree to which the skull was crushed indicates a very long fall, longer than could have happened from the dock. “Something was wrong here.” After a failed courtesy call to the State Police, she’s quick to justify, that her entry level job isn’t going to keep her from boredom and what she needs is a “hobby.” Investigating this “crime” in this small town that’s probably never heard of a crime lab seems a most reasonable hobby to her. (We can see where this flawed thinking is going to lead, but since she’s the narrator… we happily go along with her.) Conveniently her marine investigator job gives her access to everyone’s boats and any other marine related buildings, all the more so since there hasn’t been anyone in this area for some time and she has a good backlog of jobs to conveniently choose from. And what she can’t learn from her job, she finds out from Audrey, the punk waitress at the local eatery, and new found friend.
Jane’s back story is that her mother’s family is from one of the coastal islands visible from Green Haven. Though she and her younger brother were born on the island, she really only remembers the day that they left. Her mother desiring to get as far away as possible, drives until they reach Florida. And thus that is where Jane grows up and spends her adult years, until now. Jane turned down a position as chief detective in Dade County to come to Green Haven. Her only explanation, “The fact that a relationship gone bad had resulted in my mentor’s imprisonment...” Her mentor (who remains vague, although referred to often) is the person who has taught her everything she knows nautical, which as it turns out, is quite a bit. It’s not quite the back story I would have chosen for this character because she seems to know a lot more about fishing downeast than you’d think she should know – and there is very little contextual reference to her Florida fishing experience outside of explaining, “I knew the drill. Although we’d never come far enough north to fish for cod, my mentor, father figure, and fishing captain had dragged me along on every boat he’d captained during my summer vacation for eight years.” I suspect in future novels, as we become better acquaintances, Jane will tell us more, but in this first novel she doesn’t even pinpoint exactly where in Florida that she grew up. I’m guessing Jacksonville, moving to Miami as an adult.
Linda Greenlaw’s real knowledge of fishing in the Northeast is not to be disputed and the reason that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her first work of fiction. If you don’t know this already, Linda Greenlaw is the awesome female swordboat captain who worked out of Gloucester, Massachusetts for years. Probably the only female swordboat captain ever. She was on the Hannah Boden during “the perfect storm” as documented by Sebastian Junger and is portrayed in the movie of the same name. When she retired, she returned to her childhood home, an island off the coast of Maine, close to the fictional Green Haven. She has written three memoirs and a cookbook (with her mother) and this is a long-promised fiction debut.
Slipknot moves along pretty much as expected for any sleuth novel in which the setting and characters are as important as the mystery. We are introduced to the townsfolk in Jane’s movements and interactions. Most of the characters are quaint or odd, and as she notes from the start, “They’ve got one of everything in this tiny town.” Jane and Cal hit it off as “friends” down Maine style. This means that they trust each other, don’t necessarily have to talk and he has a way of looking out for her and she has a way of talking him into things he might not normally want to do, such as driving her over to the Nick Dow’s house in the evening and leaving her there to look for clues.
Jane is renting a small unit from the Vickersons’, who immediately take on the role as surrogate parents. Their home/business is the Lobster Trappe, basically a junk yard. Mrs. V. is also working on writing a mussels cookbook (thus all meals include a variation of this hand picked seafood), and husband and wife like their “drinky-poo” in the evening. Jane also bumps into the two Old Maids who run the gas station and store, a place that frugal-to-a-fault Jane tries to avoid because they have high prices, despite it being a 40 mile round trip to Ellsworth. Most of the town works for Ginny Turner’s Fish Plant in one capacity or another, including the town’s most eligible bachelor, a fishing captain. The old money in town belongs to the Hamilton’s and that is where the politics begin. There is initiative to bring in offshore wind powered generators, which is in direct conflict with the fishing grounds, of which is already under tight government regulations. And there is strong indication that Nick Dow was involved in this, or at least made to look that way.
Overall, the book has a cozy mystery feel, but Jane Bunker is no Jessica Fletcher of Cabot Cove. Jane's curiousity is driven by old habit, not mere amateur sleuthing. Through the investigation, she lights upon environmental issues that are affecting small Maine fishing communities such as Green Haven. The plot moves along at a steady clip as Jane gets herself in and out of some dangerous situations. And finally, Jane is a humorous narrator, willing to share her observations of people and clues as she adjusts to her new town and “hobby” sleuthing is credible enough motivation. Though this first novel is imperfect (for example when Audrey recounts the town meeting, it is of interest but the dialog does not feel natural to the setting or character; and there are timing issues, such as in the beginning of the book we learn that Ginny Turner works nights and then later Jane breaks into Ginny's office at night), but the mystery itself is solid and the characters and town leave a lot of openings for future books. Reflecting after her first week in her chosen home, what she thought it would be like to live in Maine, and concludes, “Tranquil it was not. I hadn’t yet sought out any of my Bunker roots, as I had tentatively planned to do. But I was beginning to feel stronger family-like ties … than I’d ever felt in Florida.” I like Jane Bunker’s spirit, Green Haven’s people and going aboard a fishing vessel with our veteran author at the helm. Keep the fiction coming, Ms. Greenlaw!
- Amazon readers rating: from 21 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain's Journey (1999)
- The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island (2002)
- All Fishermen are Liars (2004)
- Recipes from a Very Small Island (2005)
- Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea (June 2010)
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- Official website for Linda Greenlaw
- 1997 interview with Linda Greenlaw
- Readers' Guide for The Hungry Ocean
- ReviewsOfBooks review of The Lobster Chronicles
- The New York Times review of All Fishermen are Liars
- USA Today 5 questions on Linda and Slipknot
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About the Author:
Linda Greenlaw was raised and educated in Maine. She graduated from Colby College in 1983 where she majored in English and Government.
Starting out as a cook and deckhand aboard a swordboat during her summer breaks from college, Linda had worked her way into the captain's chair by 1986. She is one of the few women involved in the commercial fishing industry, and is perhaps the only female ever to captain a swordfishing boat, working the waters east of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Sebastian Junger, in his book The Perfect Storm, called Linda "one of the best swordfishing captains, period, on the East Coast". Linda and the boat she captained, the Hannah Boden, also played an important role in the highly successful movie based on the book.
Linda has skippered boats from Newfoundland to Brazil and has enjoyed a number of fisheries including harpooning and longlining for sword, dragging for squid, tub-trawling for halibut, and trapping lobster and crab.
Presently, Linda works her own boat inshore, lobstering the water surrounding her home on Isle Au Haut, a small island off the coast of Maine.