The Body in Bodega Bay by Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden
The Body in Bodega Bay by Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden (Terrace Books, 2014) is the second Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mystery written by this team who double an academic career as Emeritus Professors of English and former administrators at University of Wisconsin-Madison, with writing fiction for profit (but published through the University’s own press so everyone gets a piece of the pie). The result is a book I feel is worthy. It’s obvious the writers have invested considerable time and effort in constructing the plot. They have paid due attention to the need to produce readable prose. It all deserves our respect. But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go in the praise game we reviewers are expected to play. The technique is beautifully in place but the books lacks any kind of spark to light up interest.
The plot starts off as if it means to go on in high gear with a body discovered in a boat abandoned in the shadow of Bodega Bay. It proves to be the new “partner” in Toby’s business as an antique dealer. I’m using partner in the technical sense because although they might not have thought themselves as actually in business together, the result is almost certainly a business relationship with joint ownership of the assets bought with shared funds. The victim had been into an auction in nearby San Francisco on two consecutive days. On the first day, he’d bought three paintings showing how Alfred Hitchcock was proposing to shoot one of the scenes in his film The Birds (1963) which was set in Bodega Bay. On the next day, he was the only bidder on a Russian icon of no obvious value. Now he’s dead and someone has broken into the shop and searched. Later the house occupied by our couple is also searched, but nothing appears to have been taken. We therefore have our couple engaged by the local police to investigate the auction link and the woman who sold the two items.
However, once we have the body briefly in view as it’s brought to land and taken off to the morgue, the pace settles down to a rather more sedate level. Although we do have a chase in the mist, a physical attack on one of the local characters, and a rather by-the-numbers kidnap element at the end, there’s little tension or suspense. The tone merely captures and describes events rather than involving us in any sense of danger. Nevertheless, the book does get passionate about two things. The first is the enthusiasm which which it transmits the results of research into Russian icons, the circumstances in which they were first created, the reasons why they might be painted over, how they might come to be in America, how they can be restored, and so on. And don’t forget the business of movie-making as practiced by Hitchcock and the apparently associated artwork. The second element of significance is the relationship between Nora and her sister. By coincidence (sigh) the sister is going through a premature midlife crisis, i.e. finally deciding what she wants to do with her life. This prompts her to visit a woman who sells her services as an angel reader. From this meeting come many consequences (some terribly convenient albeit not in any way supernatural).
If our academic authors could have communicated their enthusiasm for mysteries and thrillers with the same dedication as their desire to show off the results of their research, this would have been a fine book. Unfortunately, the mystery is mechanical, and the thriller does nothing to elevate the adrenaline level. So unless you want to extend your knowledge of icons and how they first arrived in America, I can’t honestly recommend The Body in Bodega Bay.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.