We’re now at the twenty-second stop on the alphabet in crime fiction community meme’s trip through the seamier side of “alphabet town.” My thanks, as always, to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for arranging this luxury tour, complete with sightseeing ; ). This week, our stop is the letter, “V;” my choice for this letter is Philip R. Craig’s A Vineyard Killing, published in 2003. This book is the 14th of Craig’s Martha’s Vineyard series that features his sleuth, fisherman and sometimes-investigator J.W. Jackson.
As the novel opens, Jackson and his wife, Zee, are eating lunch at a local restaurant with some friends. Three men enter the restaurant, and immediately, the four friends begin an animated conversation about the new arrivals. They’re Donald Fox, a wealthy, powerful and rapacious land developer, his brother, Paul, and his assistant, Brad Hillborough. Together, these three men lead Saberfox, a very successful real estate company with some very shady practices. They’re attempting to buy up all of the land they can on Martha’s Vineyard. Anyone who won’t sell at the price they offer risks having Saberfox use all sorts of unethical (even if legal) strategies to get the land. In fact, Jackson and his wife have been approached by their representative, Albert Kirkland. So far, they’ve been able to fend Saberfox off, but needless to say, the company and its leaders are not popular in town.
On the way out of the restaurant, Paul Fox is hit by a bullet and only the fact that he’s wearing a bullet-proof vest saves his life. Jackson goes back to see if he can help Fox, and soon the police are called and begin to investigate. At first, everyone thinks that the bullet was really intended for Donald Fox. He’s the power-hungry head of Saberfox, who’s always put winning ahead of everything else. In fact, he was an Olympic fencing champion in his younger days, and has never stopped being driven. There are plenty of suspects, too. Almost everyone in town dislikes Fox and his business practices. One resident in particular, Dodie Donawa, even threatened Fox. Jackson himself comes under some scrutiny when it’s found that he, too, resisted Fox’s attempt to buy his land, and he was rather conveniently on hand when Paul Fox was shot.
Almost before anyone knows it, Dodie Donawa is arrested for the shooting and jailed. Not only does she have a motive, but a gun was found in her jacket pocket. To make matters worse, she also has a motive for shooting Paul Fox. It turns out that Paul is dating her daughter, Maria. Fortunately for Dodie, she’s able to prove that she couldn’t have shot Paul Fox, and she’s freed. At first, Jackson thinks that’s the end of his involvement with this case. He’s wrong.
Soon afterwards, Maria Donawa calls Jackson and asks him to find out whatever he can about her mother’s new beau, John Reilley. Reilley is a pleasant man who works on construction projects. He’s good to Dodie and seems to be a “straight arrow.” But Maria is worried, because he doesn’t seem to have an address, a regular bank account, or any real friends. Maria’s concerned that he may victimize her mother, and Jackson agrees to find out what he can, although he’s not exactly enthusiastic about it. His search for the truth about John Reilley leads him right back to the Fox case, though, when it turns out that Reilley is a suspect in the shooting. He was in the same restaurant as the Foxes and Hillborough were on the day of the shooting, and left just before they did. He may have a motive, too, since nobody knows much about him.
The situation is made even more complex when Albert Kirkland, Saberfox’s representative, is found murdered outside of a bar one night. It seems that someone is targeting Saberfox, and the police want to get to the bottom of the case. So does Jackson, since John Reilley is implicated, and Jackson promised Maria Donawa he would find out what he could about Reilley. Before long, Jackson’s investigation puts him in conflict with some of the local police (who don’t want him interfering), with Donald Fox (who doesn’t want him finding out too much about their business), and at first, with John Reilley (who doesn’t want his secrets discovered). In the end, though, Jackson finds out the truth about Fox’s shooting and the murder of Albert Kirkland. As it turns out, those incidents have nothing at all to do with Martha’s Vineyard. Instead, they are rooted in what one might call an obsession. In an interesting dénouement, Jackson also finds out the very surprising truth about Reilley, and in the process, finds out how John Reilley is connected to the Fox case.
A Vineyard Killing centers around an interesting and believable plot. The timing and pacing are swift enough to keep the reader interested, but slow enough that they’re right for a novel that takes place on a small, peaceful island. Craig offers some interesting surprises, and there are enough solid clues that the identity of the killer doesn’t really come “out of nowhere.” In that sense, the novel has all of the elements that keep crime fiction fans turning pages.
What really appeals about this novel, though, are the characters, the dialogue and the setting. J.W. Jackson is a likable sleuth, although some might disagree with some of his opinions (the family has no computer, for instance, and Jackson doesn’t see why they need one). Jackson’s depicted as a loving family man, and although this is the 14th novel in the series, one doesn’t need a lot of backstory to appreciate the relationship he has with his wife, Zee, and their children.
There are several other quirky and likable characters in the novel, too, as you might expect in a well-written story that takes place in a small town. We meet bartenders, nurses, shop owners, and other locals who add to the flavor of the novel. Craig takes care to make even these minor characters real. The dialogue among the characters is also quite well-written. It’s smart, often funny, and sometimes breezily sarcastic. Craig has an ear, too, for subtle differences in dialogue.
The setting for the novel, the island of Martha’s Vineyard, is also beautifully depicted. Craig gives a little of the history of the island, too, through the course of the novel, and that’s interesting. Readers get a real feel for the island in early spring, and Craig’s description of the different places on the island rings true. That’s to be expected, since he and his wife are residents. One other nice touch: Craig provides a map of the island, so that readers can get a sense of where the action takes place.
A Vineyard Killing isn’t a deep, psychological thriller, although there are strong elements of psychology in it. It’s a light read, so fans of noir fiction will probably be disappointed. But it’s a nicely-paced, engaging murder mystery with a tight plot and well-drawn characters in a beautiful setting.