[19 February 2003]
At the end of Love Her Madly, Mary-Anne Tirone Smith’s debut book of the Poppy Rice whodunit series, we left our smart-mouthed and intrepid female FBI agent headed for some well-deserved R & R to recuperate from near-fatal in-the-line-of-duty injuries. Her significant other, Joe Barrow, who works for Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, has loaned her his cottage on tiny, isolated Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island.
In the opening of Tirone Smith’s latest, She’s Not There, we pick up with Poppy savoring the first few moments of her vacation. She’s going to hang out in a lounge chair on the front porch, enjoy the ocean views, drink her favorite chilled Grey Goose, eat seafood, and spend long, lazy summer afternoons touring the quaint old fishing village on a bike. Laid-back, history-steeped Block Island, she figures, is the perfect place for a frazzled Fed to have a summer sabbatical, as far removed from the perils and pitfalls of crime solving as you can possibly get.
Poor Poppy has exactly three-and-a-half brief pages of bucolic peace and quiet before the corpses begin to pile up around her. As she’s out biking in a secluded scenic area, she sees gulls circling around a rather nasty-looking large heap of something lying in the middle of the road:
The mound was a body. Or was it two bodies intertwined? No, it was not two bodies, it was an overweight adolescent girl, naked, her large limbs wrapped grotesquely around her torso. This was not typical rigor mortis: it was as if every muscle in her body had cramped and spasmed and then stayed spasmed . . . Her mouth was open as far as human jaws allowed. She’d died screaming.
She’d also died tearing off her own clothes in agony—and with ruptured eardrums, or so the autopsy reveals, but that’s about all the light it sheds. There’s no wound, injury, or evidence of drug overdose or poisoning to explain how the unfortunate young victim, a resident at a pricey local camp for overweight upper crust teenage girls, met her horrendous fate. In short order, the remains of a second plus-size camper are found—in the exact same condition, complete with ruptured eardrums, tortured to death in the same excruciating and inexplicable way. Vexed by the ineptitude of the local constabulary and troubled by the unexplained demise of the young women, Poppy snaps into high gear to solve the mystery, with the help of her soulmate Joe Barrow.
A visit to the “camp” reveals it not to be a chic spa for the darlings of corporate kingpin daddies, but rather the fat farm from hell for the forgotten children of those who live by the motto, “You can never be too thin or too rich.” It’s presided over by a shady scumbag of a director who keeps his chubby charges locked up into Quonset huts (when they’re not being run to exhaustion on grueling forced marches around the island) and on a starvation diet of the substandard canned goods. Moreover, he also has some suspicious dealings he’s trying to cover up—including the circumstances surrounding the two dead girls’ disappearance from his camp.
When a local woman who knows a little too much about the town’s dirty linen is murdered, Poppy realizes it’s a race against time to stop a diabolical serial killer from preying upon the campers and silencing any who might expose him or her. In the process of uncovering the culprit and discovering the killer’s ghastly mode of murder, the tough-minded agent with a tender heart learns more about the checkered history of Block Island—and the dark side of its secretive long-time residents—than she ever bargained for.
The author gives us more than we bargained for, too. Her forensic and technical details are impeccable, and the modus operandi of the murderer is worthy of Edgar Allen Poe in its macabre bizarreness. Smith’s earlier experience in writing literary fiction lends her current work a richness that is often missing or minimal at best in genre novels. Her descriptions are flawless and vivid, whether it’s the arresting landscape of Block Island or the appearance of a corpse or a dinner of seafood linguine. She infuses her characters with a warmth and humanity that renders them completely believable. From the eccentric townspeople with their distrust of outsiders to the teenage campers, whose problems are less with actual avoirdupois than with a weight and beauty obsessed society intolerant of anyone not meeting the rigid standards, the people in Smith’s book ring absolutely true.
And of course, there’s Poppy, the quintessential modern woman—snappy, savvy, sexy, self-actualized, and soooo smart, but with a soft side and a surprising sensitivity that gives her an irresistible appeal.
She’s Not There is an unusual and superbly crafted whodunit for those who demand a cut above the commonplace in their suspense thrillers. With her team of Poppy Rice and Joe Barrow, Smith is raising the bar for the detective/mystery genre, delivering edge-of-your-seat excitement in a graceful, thoroughly intelligent, and classy style reminiscent of the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mystery novels of Dorothy Sayers.
Fans of Love Her Madly shouldn’t be disappointed with this second installment, and newcomers will find it easy to come under the influence of Smith’s storytelling spell. Like the chilled Grey Goose that Poppy Rice is so fond of, She’s Not There is sparkling, sophisticated and heady—and more than a little addictive. The good news is that Smith is busy distilling the third book in the series, so devotees shouldn’t have too long to wait.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/shes-not-there/