In her first book in the Harriet MacIver Mystery series, veteran faith fiction novelist Diane Noble tackles a heady mix of murder and scientific research gone awry against the lush backdrop of Costa Rica.
The just-widowed Harriet MacIver is a brand new travel writer with a fear of flying and destined to be the next big thing in the travel world. Harriet doesn't go anywhere without her lumbering, 20-pound-plus scary feline named Gus (short for asparagus). When her assigning editor at the Town Crier newspaper sends her (and Gus) to cover a Costa Rican cruise on a rusty tub of a ship, the Sun Spirit, she's saddled with the dual task of keeping an eye on the editor's college-age daughter, Carly Lowe.
It's a long way from the glamorous assignment Harriet envisioned. A murder on board is a grim foreshadowing of what's to come. Things get nastier when Carly doesn't turn up after a trip ashore, and, as Harriet discovers, she's not the first girl to disappear in Costa Rica from Carly's Florida college. Then Kate Rivers, a classmate, also disappears. And their frumpy fellow student Zoë Shire seems to know more than she's telling.
Two rather dashing older men are on Harriet's radar screen: one a Nobel Prize contender for his scientific research (can you see what's coming here?) and another who has a checkered past and a poignant story. When the trail of the missing girls leads to a butterfly farm, Harriet must decide which man to trust. And if she makes the wrong choice, the consequences will be deadly.
Noble portrays Harriet MacIver as a cross between Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Christie's Miss Marple is fond of saying she learns everything she knows from observing life in a small English village; Harriet likes to point out that "Raising a family teaches you a lot about life, things like passion for what matters and stick-to-it-iveness to see a project through." Mrs. Pollifax is a previously depressed grandmotherly detective with a penchant for hats who travels the globe for the CIA; Harriet is a slightly depressed grandmotherly travel writer with a love for a ballcap (emblazoned with "You Go, Girl") who visits exotic locales as part of her work. Unlike Pollifax and Marple, however, MacIver flies airplanes and is up front and out there with her Christian faith.
Noble incorporates the repeating motif of the poisonous blue morpho butterfly throughout the book, which is a great touch mystery aficionados will appreciate. However, the reader is required to suspend disbelief on several plot points --- that the disappearing popular and attractive girls from the same college would all share a common blood type and genetic markers, just for starters. There are some lovely passages ("Ribbons of gray mist and fog clung to the dark water") but the story could have benefited from a good tightening of at least 50 pages, if not more, and the action slows in places.
Yet it's always refreshing to have the central character be closer to senior citizen than twenty-something, and the interesting details, nice rapport between the college students and Harriet, and current interest in stem cell research (Noble never really states a definitive position on this, by the way) will appeal to many mystery readers. Fans of Noble's previous books, including THE STORYTELLER and her California Chronicles trilogy, should enjoy this one.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org.