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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Staff Book Review: CATHEAD BAY

Back by popular demand, another book review from Bruce Balas:

CATHEAD BAY, by Robert Underhill. Delicti Press, 2008. Paperback.

What a fun read this is, the second of the “Sheriff Hoss Davis” mystery stories, since much of the action takes place right here in Northport! It’s fascinating to walk the familiar route from Barb’s Bakery, past Dog Ears Books and on down to the Beech Tree property, seeing it all through the eyes of the characters of the novel. I’m sure that the author intended no resemblance to any real persons, but a number of minor characters you meet in this story seem rather familiar. See if you agree with me!

The plot involves the murder of a famous New York chef, during a party he is hosting at his vacation home on Cathead Bay. The police arrive, quickly eliminate all but a few attendees as suspects, and the investigation begins. The author departs from the traditional mystery storyline, with all the characters assembled in the library, where the detective finally reveals the killer's identity at the end of the story. Instead, fairly early on, the police figure out a probable culprit, and their investigation becomes an effort to find evidence to support their presumption. Robert Underhill paints a very clear picture of police procedure as he has the reader sit in on the daily meetings where the sheriff and his deputies evaluate what they have learned and map out the steps they will take to follow up on other leads.

One aspect of Underhill’s style that I found particularly striking stems from the fact that he is a psychiatrist and uses his professional training to be sure that the reader understands the characters’ motivations. Very little happens without a well thought-out and clearly described reason (Hint: Keep this in mind as you read the prologue!), and the author makes a particular point of the importance of motivation as we follow the police in their investigation. For instance, at one point the chef’s wife is thought to be the murderer when it is revealed that her husband was having an affair; however, that lead fizzles when further investigation reveals that he has been having affairs throughout his marriage and that there’s nothing unusual about this one that would make it a motive for murder.

A significant subplot involves the sheriff's’ relations with the press. A national TV crew provides much of the tension early in the story, as their broadcasts characterize the Leelanau sheriff as “small town” and “bumbling” and constantly pressure him to come up with a suspect. In addition, they repeatedly interfere with his investigation in their search for a dramatic news story. The resulting conflict between the public’s right to know and the potential suspect’s right to privacy provides an interesting sidelight. How the author ultimately settles this issue is cleverly devised and leaves no doubt as to how he feels about the issue.

One more interesting feature of this story is that although it is a Sheriff Hoss Davis mystery, his deputy, who happens to be a woman, takes the lead in the investigation. It’s not easy for a man to write from a woman’s point of view. I enjoyed the story and felt Underhill did the woman’s viewpoint well, but I’d like to hear from some of you women readers as to how you think he did.

In paperback, only 272 pages long and with quite large print, this will make a great summer beach read. If you enjoy it, I can recommend the first book of the series, STRAWBERRY MOON by the same author.

- Bruce Balas

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