***Cold Blood, Hot Sea

Maine, lobstermen, boat

David Nicholls, creative commons license

By Charlene D’Avanzo – This story, billed as “A Mara Tusconi Mystery,” introduces Mara, age 31, whose work at the Maine Oceanographic Institute (MOI) centers on the timely subject of climate change. D’Avanzo deserves credit for taking on the difficult task of making a science topic accessible to a general audience and taking advantage of the possibilities for drama inherent in this contentious field.

The story holds several key points of friction. First, between Mara and an aquaculture startup corporation up the Maine coast a short distance, which she believes may be fudging its data—anathema for any reputable scientist. And, second, between her fellow climate researchers and an apparently well funded cadre of climate change deniers who increasingly resort to spying, sabotage, and threats of physical violence. She has her personal issues as well: she gets seasick easily and she’s a behind-the-scenes player, deathly afraid of public speaking. At the same time, she’s trying to persuade Maine lobstermen that her research isn’t the threat, but the underlying changes in sea temperatures that could jeopardize their livelihoods.

As the novel begins, Mara and other MOI researchers head out to sea on their ship Intrepid to launch huge data-gathering buoys that will reveal ocean temperature trends. The buoy of her friend and colleague Harvey (a woman) goes into the water without incident. Because Mara is seasick, she turns the launch of her buoy over to Peter Riley, a young MOI PhD. Something goes disastrously wrong with the winch, the buoy slips, and fatally injures Peter.

An old MOI hand advises Mara to investigate Peter’s death on her own, secretly. She says the organization’s administrators may try to cover up any problems, in order not to scare off potential funders. Thus amateur sleuth Mara starts on a bit of a whirlwind of plot-driven activity.

D’Avanzo gives Mara a large cast of potential allies and antagonists, almost too many to flesh out in sufficient detail. Partly because the novel is told strictly from Mara’s point of view, we don’t get to know these other characters in very well. Stronger characters would create more unpredictability in the outcome and make me more invested in it.

When the opportunity arises for Mara to play a more prominent role in the climate change debate, she must weigh the risks of harassment along with the opportunities to make a vital contribution, and her personal strengths against her fears.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.