SHADOWS OF A DOWN EAST SUMMER by Lea Wait

Palo Alto:  Perseverance Press, 2011. $14.95

After a hiatus of five years, Lea Wait’s Antique Print mysteries have returned. Fans familiar with the series will be happy, but for those who are not returning to a beloved character and setting, this novel is not the one with which to begin.

It is always difficult for a reader, even more so a reviewer, to come into a series that possesses more than a couple of entries. We do not know the characters because we have not honed our sense of them from the beginning. Furthermore, it is tricky for the author, too. Too much repetition of material known from previous entries in the series is tedious for longtime fans; insufficient characterization will alienate new readers.

What is an author to do? Try for a change of pace and make a past-present mystery. 

In this entry in the Antique Print series, there are two story lines. One involves the journal of Anna May Pratt, written in 1890-1 and deals with her and her friend Jessie posing for Winslow Homer at his Prouts Neck studio. The other storyline takes place in contemporary Waymouth, Maine where Maggie Summer has come for vacation and to see her boyfriend, Will Brewer. Almost immediately upon arrival, she’s introduced to Carolyn Chase, who is working upon a biography of her mother, Helen Chase, an important 20th century American painter. Carolyn wants Maggie’s help because, besides being a dealer in antique prints, Maggie is a professor of American studies, specializing in the art and culture of the 19th century. Various people in Waymouth, including a family with artistic pretensions, an art history graduate student, the head of the local historical society, and the research librarian, know about Carolyn’s project, her papers, and the journal, but it is to Maggie she gives the journal--before she is killed.

At this point, the journal becomes both the killer’s desired object and the means to solving the contemporary murder. What could an old journal contain that would occasion murder, home invasion, and assault of an old lady? Maggie finds more in the journal than just the longing to be grown up and married to the man of her own choice, rather than her father’s. The nasty secrets of the journal lead to mistaken ideas that, in turn, drive ambition and murder. 

Unfortunately, this novel has both too much and too little. It has too much plot carried by too few characters of any depth. It is truly a contemporary mystery strongly informed by a single, undeveloped historical source.

The contemporary murder plot has a subplot that involves paintings of Maine by Helen Chase, but since they have rarely, if ever, been seen outside the family, they had to be stolen. This subplot is barely connected to the main plot, and like the main plot, the solution is left to almost to the very end of the novel. Maggie is the one who spots the paintings and calls the police on it, only to be treated with disdain by the cops. She then practically gets handed the solution by somebody else. The majority of Maggie’s investigation into Carolyn Chase’s death involves reading the journal. There is very little application of shoe leather, certainly not enough to warrant the hostility to an outsider by both Carolyn’s lawyer and the cops. The lawyer’s initial anger is both unprofessional and misplaced, and Det. Nick Strait is reduced to a wince-inducing incompetent. There are no surprises to the ending. The killers are exactly who we, the readers, expect them to be. One of them is a mere spear-bearer.

The journal of Anna May Pratt is undoubtedly the strength of this novel and, frankly, we have too little of it. It does not develop either Anna or her friend Jessie beyond the conventional, small-town young woman obsessed with marriage because there is nothing else. It yields next to nothing about Winslow Homer, a particularly disappointing omission. This lack diminishes the journal’s potency as an object over which someone could get killed. 

SHADOWS OF A DOWN EAST SUMMER could have been an interesting and engaging novel. It fails for any save the most hardcore fan because its characters cannot carry the plot they are given. While there are points of contention, the author appears to shy away from conflict. That very lack of conflict, that lack of wanting something, even so much as a glass of water, leaves readers wondering why they should care.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com