(reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 12, 2004)
"Calhoun had not lost his memory. He remembered things, knew he'd seen them before. Déjà vu. His brain, in fact, sometimes felt like an electrical socket with too many plugs stuck into it… He was overloaded with memories, and many of them were quite coherent and complete, although they tended not to connect with each other. They were like clips of movies playing in his head, with him as both main character and audience."
If you liked William G. Tapply's Brady Coyne mysteries, you'll love his new "hero," Stonewall Jackson Calhoun. Stoney has been living for five years in the southernmost corner of Maine, near the border with New Hampshire, and has a job he loves at a bait and tackle shop, where he ties flies and acts as a fishing guide. He also has a woman who loves him, a best friend, a faithful Brittany spaniel, and a house that he has built with his own hands. What Stoney does not have is a remembered past. More than six years ago, he was struck by lightning and, as a result, has lost his ability to call up his memories, even after staying in the hospital for eighteen months. All he knows about his life is what people have told him--that he is originally from Beaufort, South Carolina and that he has an ex-wife about whom he has no recollection. On his own, he has discovered that he loves music, that fishing comes naturally to him, and that something has drawn him to the woods of rural southern Maine, though he does not know what or why.
For Stoney, Maine has "powerful flashes of déjà vu, so vivid and evocative and disturbing that sometimes he has to sit down and blink the tears from his eyes. Dusty roads flanked by stone walls, sandy soil, blueberry burns, old cellar holes at the end of rutted cart paths now grown up in alder, meadows studded with juniper and clumps of partridge, the flash of a whitetail's flag, sugar maples tapped with sap spigots, the aluminum roof of a barn covered with old tractor tires so it wouldn't blow off…" He also has memory flashes about a girl on a blanket, laughing children, and whitehaired old women, but he does not know who these people are or where they are located.
Stoney is a uniquely sympathetic character, as he tries to live his life and deal with fragments of memory that come to him at odd moments. His "life" involves discovering what he can and cannot do in the course of his everyday life, learning what comes naturally, what his instincts are, and sometimes what events trigger flashes of the past. When Fred Green, a man in his sixties from out of town, comes into the shop to hire Stoney to take him fishing for native Maine trout, Stoney begs off because, instinctively, he does not like the man. Instead, he calls a young friend, Lyle McMahan, to take his place. Green, like many other dedicated fishermen, claims to know a secret fishing spot, one he will not reveal to anyone. When Green and Lyle set out, no one at the shop knows exactly where they are going, and when Lyle does not return that night or the next day, Stoney and Kate, who owns the shop, become worried.
When Lyle's truck is found behind a grammar school in another nearby town, big questions arise, since the rental car Fred Green was driving can not possibly have handled the muddy off-road trek to a trout pond, yet the truck is distant from the site. Under the front seat of Lyle's truck, Stoney discovers a topographical gazetteer with a lightly penciled X in the general area where Green indicated the existence of his pond. Stoney, consumed with guilt over the disappearance of Lyle, his best friend, determines to find out what happened to him. In a remote area, at the place Green has indicated on the gazetteer, Stoney finds Lyle's body, caught in the weeds at the edge of the pond, his "belly boat" deflated.
Alternating back and forth in time, the narrative details Stoney's search for Lyle's killer, whom he believes to be the mysterious Fred Green, at the same time that it reveals Stoney's own background, or as much of it as he can recall, along with his present life and relationships. Stoney is in love with Kate Balaban, who owns the shop, and he is having an affair with her, despite the fact that she is married. We meet Millie Dobson, the real estate agent; Jacob Barnes, who runs the store in Dublin; Anna and David Ross, who own the old farmland overlooking the pond where Lyle was killed; and, of course, Ralph, Stoney's four-year-old Brittany spaniel, all unique "characters." We learn about the wooded land Stoney has bought on Bitch Creek, formerly belonging to a family named Calhoun, though not his kin; about the Great Fire of 1947, which destroyed the house that had been on the site; and about the house Stoney has built on the land with Lyle's help. The history of the area, the interrelationships of the people who live there, and the Down East spirit which imbues their lives all come alive in Tapply's narrative.
As he investigates Lyle's death, Stoney discovers that he has a talent for investigation, and he begins to wonder if he might have been connected to some sort of law enforcement. He also discovers that he is far more aggressive than he had ever thought. Then the mysterious Man in the Suit arrives at his house, unannounced and uninvited, questioning Stoney about what he remembers from the past, and whether he can recall anything about the man who saved his life or what he was doing when he was hit by lightning. Stoney does not know him or whether he is from the hospital or from some government agency which wants to be sure that he does not remember something important. Not surprisingly, Stoney is furious that he has been tracked down in this remote spot and confronted on his own land.
The mystery here is well developed and exciting, with confrontations, gunshots, and fights, though the pace is generally low-keyed. Stoney is a terrific main character, and it is easy to see that Tapply will be able to take Stoney into many new directions, as he continuously deals with fragmentary memories of the past and the unexpected arrival of the Man in the Suit. If anything, Stoney has the potential to be an even more winning main character than Brady Coyne since Tapply himself is a writer about fishing and clearly loves having a main character who is a fishing guide in the Maine woods. The level of detail rings with truth, the characters are realistic, and the dialogue sounds like real Down East dialogue (such as it is), filled with long pauses and "ay-uhs." The prose is descriptive, even lyrical in places, and is as unpretentious as the Maine woods. Atmospheric and true to place, the novel conveys the spirit of Maine within a mystery that will intrigue readers from around the country. As for Stoney Calhoun, I can hardly wait for his next adventure.
- Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews
Read an excerpt from Bitch Creek (scroll down)
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Brady Coyne Mystery Series:
- Death at Charity's Point (1984)
- The Dutch Blue Error (1984)
- Follow the Sharks (1985)
- The Marine Corpse (1986)
- Dead Meat (1987)
- The Vulgar Boatman (1987)
- A Void in Hearts (1988)
- Dead Winter (1989)
- Client Privilege (1990)
- The Spotted Cats (1991)
- Tight Lines (1992)
- The Snake Eater (1993)
- The Seventh Enemy (1995)
- Close to the Bone (1996)
- Cutter's Run (1998)
- Muscle Memory (July 1999)
- Scar Tissue (October 2000)
- Past Tense (October 2001)
- A Fine Line (November 2002)
- Shadow of Death (November 2003)
- Nervous Water (September 2005)
- Out Cold (September 2006)
- One-Way Ticket (September 2007)
- Hell Bent (September 2008)
- Outwitting Trolls (November 2010)
Stoney Calhoun Mystery Series:
Written with Linda Barlow:
- Thicker Than Water (1995)
Brady Coyne/J.W. Jackson (Written with Philip R. Craig):
- The Nomination (February 2011)
- Those Hours Spent Outdoors: Reflections on Hunting and Fishing
- Sportsman's Legacy (1993)
- The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing a Modern Whodunit (1995; May 2004)
- A Fly-Fishing Life (1997)
- Bass Bug Fishing (November 1999)
- Upland Days: Fifty Years of Bird Hunting in New England (December 2000)
- A Pocket Water: Confessions of a Restless Angler (December 2001)
- The Orvis Pocket Guide to Fly Fishing for Bass (March 2003)
- Gone Fishin' -- Ruminations on Fly Fishing (November 2004)
- Trout Eyes: True Tales of Adventure, Travel and Fly-Fishing (April 2007)
- Every Day Was Special: A Fly Fisher's Lifelong Passion (May 2010)
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- William G. Tapply's official web site
- MostlyFiction.com review of Client Privilege
- BookReporter.com review of First Light
- HippoPress review of First Light
- MostlyFiction.com review of Shadow of Death
- Wolf Moon Press review of Bitch Creek
- ClarkNews on William Tapply's new books
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About the Author:
William G. Tapply was a Lexington High School teacher and housemaster until 1990. Since 1992 he has been an editorial associate for the Writer's Digest School. He currently teaches at Emerson College and Clark University and continues to write. His first Brady Coyne mystery, Death at Charity's Point, won the 1984 Scribner Crime Novel Award. Tapply was also a contributing editor to Field and Stream magazine and is a noted writer on fishing and the outdoors. He lived in Harvard, Massachusetts. He has three adult children.
Wiliam Tapply died July 28, 2009.