***The Bends

Woods Hole pier

photo: Andjam 79, creative commons license

By Leah Devlin – This current-day police procedural is the third mystery-thriller in a series that takes place in and around the picturesque village of Woods Hole, located on far southwest Cape Cod. Big water—Nantucket Sound, Cape Cod Bay, Buzzards Bay, the Atlantic—is never far.

The irony that young Detective Bill Bleach, pale as his name suggests, is prone to violent seasickness is not lost on him. Unfortunately, corpses have the same effect on his digestion, and he has to deal with them too.

Devlin effectively conjures up the Woods Hole environment and the preoccupations of several principal characters: Nobel laureates Lindsey Nolan and Sara Kauni, who are inventing a new dive helmet, and marine biologist Jessie McCabe (protagonist of Devlin’s previous book, Ægir’s Curse). Nolan’s adopted daughter, Maggie May, takes the lead in this story. She’s an accomplished diver and a talented student at the nearby Newbury College of Art, as well as a former drug user whom Nolan met in rehab.

When two murders at the College baffle the police, a small group of students is at the top of the list of suspects, Maggie May chief among them. Unfortunately for Detective Bleach, he’s seriously attracted to the chain-smoking, brittle young woman. His partner begins to doubt his objectivity, and Maggie May to doubt his intentions. He desperately wants to clear Maggie May, and protect her too, since it appears to him she may be the killer’s next victim.

Devlin’s characterization of the art college—the faculty politics, the student life, the manipulations and rivalries—struck me as quite believable. Less so was the architectural design of the place, built in the 1970s, with thick interior stone walls. In fact, these walls are so thick they allow a passage down the middle, and slits in the walls (apparently invisible to the users of the various studios and offices) allow every room to be spied upon.

No one knows about this building feature except the architect who designed it, Edward Gripp. As a wealthy benefactor of the college and donor of the campus buildings, Gripp keeps a small office there, which allows him secret access to his “Labyrinth.” He particularly enjoys spying on two married faculty members carrying on a torrid affair.

Devlin’s development of Maggie May as a young woman determined to stay sober, who faithfully attends her NA meetings, and in times of stress turns to the psychological supports they provide, makes her an interesting, unique character. Her roommate and occasional dive-partner Lily is the precious daughter of a fierce mother, determined that her daughter succeed in every endeavor—in other words, one of those delicious characters you love to hate.

While the book could have used a good copy-editing to resolve some grammar and usage problems, Devlin writes in a straightforward, unembellished style. You’ll find a little more plot (physical events) than story (emotional journey) in this novel, but it moves along briskly, with interesting characters, a well-created setting, and a satisfying surprise at the end.

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