Faye Longchamp is facing the challenge of a lifetime: she has been contracted to survey archaeological sites along the mouth of the Mississippi which are in imminent danger from the oil pouring from the Deep Horizon site. She and her husband both have extreme reservations about their tiny fledgling company’s ability to manage the massive project, but Faye is determined: she knows that turning this down or, worse, failing would be a death blow to her business.
Added to the pressure of the job – and the stress of the reason for the job, the tide of oil that is heading in to coat not only her beloved Louisiana coast but also the island she inherited, Joyeuse – is the constant requirement of care for her one-year-old son Michael. When Olympe, Michael’s nanny (also a mamba, or, in the vernacular, voodoo priestess), is injured, Faye turns for help to a sixteen-year-old girl living on the nearby houseboat with her grandmother (also a voodoo priestess, which causes sparks to fly when she and Olympe meet). Faye and Amande quickly form a bond, as the girl has a passion for finding old things herself.
Then, on top of everything, Amande finds the body of her uncle floating by the houseboat. After which, in quick succession, she has to face the additional deaths of her grandmother – the only stable point in her life – and of the mother she never knew, while another uncle and aunt and her mother’s husband circle in like sharks trying to figure out how best to seize the biggest piece of her pitiful inheritance for themselves. Police investigate, social workers try to figure out not what’s best – that’s obvious – but how to legally achieve it, and Faye and Joe fight to keep all of their bases covered, while a young man dives for treasure, and the oil keeps coming closer.
I loved the way this story was told, through Faye’s first-person point of view intercut now and then with first-person never-to-be-released podcasts by the teenaged girl the mystery revolves around, Amande. It’s a clever way to inject the piratical history of the place, the buccaneering background, while also giving an intimate look at the wrecked emotional landscape of a wounded teenaged girl. It helped a great deal that I liked Faye, a lot. She’s a lovely, well-built character, who gives every indication that of course she has a life outside – before, after, and during – the story being told. All of the characters do, whether it’s a story anyone would ever want to read about or not; Amande’s no-good awful relatives are all very busy people in their own sordid and unsavory ways.
Actually, for characters I despised, Amande’s uncle Tebo and aunt Didi are in an odd way admirable. As human beings, I’m glad they’re fictional – though, sadly, not far-fetched. As fictional characters, they were kind of great. Each in his own way has a life outside of the story. Each looks on surface like a cliché of selfish drunken awfulness – but neither fits the pigeonhole perfectly. Each came up with some surprises. They were still selfish and drunk and awful – but they avoided cliché.
There were a number of surprises in this book. Again, pigeonholes never quite fit – always a good thing. Faye is much closer to an actual human being than the vast majority of mystery heroines – she is a hard-working mother and wife, and she’s a heroine. I look forward to reading the earlier books and finding out more about her marriage – if her husband Joe wasn’t so well-rounded he’d be (again) a stereotypical Native American hunk. But he’s better than that. Amande was about as different from the usual fictional teenaged girl as it’s possible to be (she’d have to be, wouldn’t she?). The tone of the book, which I expected to be fairly Cozy, wasn’t: despite a non-sleuth main character, a happy marriage in the forefront, and kids front and center – all staples of the Cozy in my experience – this was much more grounded in reality and the grit and sand – and oil – of Faye’s work. Faye takes some actions which – to me sitting safe and dry reading about them – seem completely stupidly dangerous (another staple of cozy mysteries), but about which her reasoning makes sense: in the moment, given the circs, she had no choice.
The two things that surprised me the most, though, were that, though the killer seemed fairly clear from early on, the suspense never slackened – and that nobody was really safe in this story. There was always the sense that any one of these characters (except perhaps Faye, the narrator) might be the next murder victim. Particularly because this was the first book I’ve read by the author, I had no expectations of how Amande’s story would play out. I knew how I wanted it to go, and that seemed less and less likely as the pages (figuratively) turned.
This was the seventh book in its series, and I haven’t read any of the others (I will, though). It stood on its own very well … though … that makes me wonder, just a little, if this is one of those series in which the events of one book have little to no impact on the stories that follow. That is, what happens in Plunder will certainly affect the next book, and obviously Michael is something that happened in an earlier tale – but what I wonder is if the oil will still affect book #8, and such. I can’t wait to find out.
This was a Netgalley read, so thank you to them.