There are certain venues?times and places?that are problematical or, alternatively, rich for a novelist. If, for example, a novel is set in Honolulu on Saturday, December 6, 1941, any conversation between characters about what they plan to do tomorrow, go on a picnic, say, is fraught with meaning?to the reader, not to the characters. The same holds true for New York City in early September 2001, and so on. Carolyn Haines sets her new novel, Revenant, in August of 2005 on the Mississippi Coast, in Biloxi.
By Don Noble
There are certain venues?times and places?that are problematical or, alternatively, rich for a novelist. If, for example, a novel is set in Honolulu on Saturday, December 6, 1941, any conversation between characters about what they plan to do tomorrow, go on a picnic, say, is fraught with meaning?to the reader, not to the characters. The same holds true for New York City in early September 2001, and so on. Carolyn Haines sets her new novel, Revenant, in August of 2005 on the Mississippi Coast, in Biloxi. Five bodies are discovered under the paving in a casino parking lot. The lot was paved in 1981, so the bodies have been there at least twenty-four years. What the characters don't know but the reader thinks about is, if they had not been accidentally dug up when they were, a month later Hurricane Katrina would have washed them, the parking lot, the casino, the entire town, away. Yes, life is fragile and so is evidence and everything else.
Not only can Carolyn Haines write faster than most Americans can read?that is to say, two books a year?she has also, over a career of more than fifty novels, become a smooth professional crafter of murder mysteries. Her protagonist in this novel is a new creation, Carson Lynch. Lynch was a big-time newspaper reporter in Miami, but after she wrote some articles about the Mob, her house was burned down. Her daughter died in the fire, her marriage fell apart, and she became an alcoholic and lost her job. Now she is back in Biloxi at the third-rate local paper, covering these twenty-four-year-old murders.
Carson Lynch is still good-looking but irritable, sad, brooding, and lonely, though not looking for company. She drinks a lot of vodka, sings karioke alone in her favorite bar, and is in her way an intriguing noirish heroine.
She is a reporter, not a detective, but many of the skills are the same. Using the newspaper morgue, she quickly learns the identities of four of the five dead girls. The fifth body is a mystery. Lynch interviews survivors, talks to Alvin Orley, a gangster who used to own the casino and is now in Angola for murder, and meets and spars with the police, the detectives, the DA. They are all out to find the maniac who killed those five girls, when a sixth girl is discovered, newly killed, and like the others missing her ring finger and wearing a bridal veil. The killer is baaa-ack. Maybe. Or is it a copycat?
In the course of her investigations, Lynch's suspicions light on a number of local men, some of whom are connected to her romantically, some not. Is it Mitch, the DA, Michael, the veterinarian, the farrier Strange Yoder, Lynch's brother-in-law, Tommy? For a little while, as in any good mystery, we suspect each in turn.
Along the way, via Carson's flights of nostalgia, Haines evokes the sleepy Mississippi coast of the pre-casino days and contrasts it with the tawdry, violent, but admittedly prosperous present.
We also learn to like Carson Lynch and wish her some recovery. She may not return to her first husband, but she needs to reduce her guilt and grieving over her dead daughter, Annabelle, drink fewer vodka martinis, and rejoin the living world around her. By the end of the novel, Carson Lynch has made some progress and, just as I am sure there will be more Carson Lynch novels, I am also sure she will be more, shall we say, socially active in the stories to come.
In closing: as in any who-done-it, there are clues. On the front cover under the title, Revenant, Haines has the dictionary definition, "one that returns after death or a long absence."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.