Steven Axelrod,
Nantucket Five-Spot: A Henry Kennis Mystery
(Poisoned Pen Press, 2015)

This book is the second installment in a series, after the inaugural Nantucket Sawbuck: A Henry Kennis Mystery was released in 2014. Main character Henry Kennis is the police chief in Nantucket, Massachusetts. He's a relative newcomer to the island, having previously worked in law enforcement in what can only be guessed is Nantucket's bizarro-world opposite: Los Angeles. This set-up reminds me of the time Mort Metzger (Ron Masak) moved from New York City to small-town Cabot Cove, Maine, to take over as sheriff when Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) left the scene of Murder, She Wrote. And just like Mort, Henry expects Nantucket to be a much easier and quieter gig. Of course, it turns out not to be.

The book opens with a bang. Literally. A bomb goes off on the first page. Who's responsible for it, and what are they trying to accomplish? We don't know, and neither does Kennis. We immediately backtrack through a two-week flashback to watch and consider the series of events that led up to this moment.

We soon learn that an earlier bomb threat had been called in. The folks at Homeland Security had been alerted, and one of its teams had flown in to take over the investigation. Enter Jack Tornovitch, a serious over-the-top stickler who plays by every single letter of the book. He is joined by Franny Tate, a savvy fellow agent, who approaches evidence methodically and completely and lets Jack take credit for her correct analyses. Henry happens to have "history" with both of them, from his previous days on the West Coast. Naturally, he doesn't get along with Jack. His connection with Franny, on the other hand, is professional as well as social. Perhaps the two of them can pick up where they once left off. They're enjoying a nice dinner out on the town, when that bomb explodes nearby.

We've got a bunch of juxtapositions here. Nantucket already has its own to supply to the setting: summer people v. year-rounds; tourists v. natives; wealthy folks v. the not-so. Any one of these groups could harbor a nut or two. Then there's the investigation itself, the feds v. the locals. From what we read in police procedurals and what we see on TV dramas, this arrangement is typically a stressful one. Neither side wants to give up its insider information. We have to be on Henry's side in this struggle, since he's the one we're following and listening to. The chief himself is a bit of an enigma. It's said that he's a writer and a poet, in addition to heading the police department. We get to read one of his poems on page 116, and it's not bad. I guess he doesn't have time these days to write much more.

The structure of the book itself offers more seesaw moments. Chapters that have Henry in the forefront are written from his point of view. They alternate with chapters featuring someone from the outside world named Zeke Beaumont. As we come to understand when we turn the pages, Zeke is one of the bad guys in this deal. But will he be the sole actor behind the bombing(s)? Or are one or two individuals perched above him, pulling his strings? We readers don't know. And even as Henry comes closer to uncovering the truth, he isn't quite so sure either. After all, a few locals have become prime suspects. Carpenter Billy Delavane seems to have the most clues pointing toward him. Then there's -- unfortunately -- Haden Krakauer, a cop who is also an avid bird-watcher and who has been going through some tough times lately. Either one of these men could be providing the island connection that the terrorist needs. Or are both being framed by an as-yet unknown person? This last thought may be the scariest one of all. And what does 11-year-old Debbie Garrison have to do with this case, anyway? Why does she keep popping up?

As usual with these kinds of mysteries, the multiple threads eventually come together to lead to one critical moment. The ultimate solution turns out to be a logical one. The perps put up a fight, and they get what they deserve. That's what we had hoped for, all along.

Nantucket Five-Spot should find fair readership among those folks who devour mysteries like potato chips. The author lives on the island and obviously knows it inside and out. (We could have used a basic map on the flyleaves, though.) The plot is compelling and can hold an audience's attention. The book may even lend itself to re-reading; because once you know what happens at the end, everything that came before suddenly makes a lot more sense. I can imagine a number of people getting to the last page and turning right around and saying, "Wait a minute. Let's go through this whole thing again." The second reading would be quite different.

That being said: I found enough inconsistencies in the book that I wasn't overly wowed. I read it, and I thought the loose ends were tied up decently. In general, I felt as though too much was always going on: there were too many walk-ons, too many named people, too many balls in the air. We readers don't know which of these details are important and which ones we can just let slip by. Mysteries are like that. (Yeah, they are.) But I was overwhelmed by too much minutiae. Some of it could have been pared away.

Additionally: I like the use of flashbacks. And I like books where the chapters alternate and focus on different people. But using the two at once -- having Henry investigating in one time period and Zeke approaching the island from even further back in years -- well, I thought this arrangement was jarring. I had to keep reminding myself who I was following and when they were working. I can't imagine how the author kept it all straight. Maybe he used a wall-sized flow chart.

Henry Kennis is a likeable main character, for a police chief. He's also supposed to be a writer, specifically a poet. As I mentioned above, we get to read one of his poems. But if he's a true free-time writer, why doesn't he behave like one? Why isn't he jotting random ideas down in a notebook, as they come to him? Why isn't he getting up early to write, before the rest of his day has to start? Admittedly, Kennis does slip into writerly mode at times when he describes scenes through the use of similes. A verbal threat from an angry resident becomes "a flimsy blizzard of words thrown like confetti at a wedding." The hectic atmosphere of the police station sometimes feels "like a bad Disney movie from the fifties." These creative descriptions seem forced at times, though. Eventually they disappear from the narrative, when Kennis is too busy chasing down suspects and answers to wax poetic about passing imagery.

I enjoy reading mysteries set in coastal New England. I read all of Philip R. Craig's mysteries that feature likable fisherman J.W. Jackson on Martha's Vineyard. Axelrod's series is more intense than Craig's is. I'm glad I read Nantucket Five-Spot, and I'm glad there will be more episodes in the series. Whether I get a chance to read them or not: well, I can't make any promises.

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

21 February 2015

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