A mellow mystery on the Outer Banks
By Anne Blythe
Smile Beach may be a fictional spot on the imaginary Cattail Island, but in Smile Beach Murder, cozy mystery writer Alicia Bessette captures the real spirit of the Outer Banks, where the residents have a strong and often quirky sense of self-reliance and, at the same time, a profound need for community.
That connection is built around such places as the MotherVine Bookshop, Meek’s hardware store, the Cattail Crier office, the old lighthouse and inside the island natives’ homes, where the “inlanders” are referred to as dingbatters.
“Cattail Island is known for its beaches,” Bessette writes in the voice of her narrator. “The eastside ones evoke the covers of summer escape novels — windswept dunes sloping in fine sands, and beyond, the vast Atlantic. The westside beaches, including Smile Beach, feature the shallow, gentle waves of the Pamlico Sound. Unless of course there’s a storm.”
Callie Padgett, the protagonist, is a 38-year-old reporter freshly laid off from the Charlotte Times caught up in a storm of her own who has returned home to live with her uncle while she searches for another journalism job. She quickly gets swept up in a mystery when Eva Meeks, a beguiling eccentric whose family owns the local hardware store, is found lifeless at the base of the Cattail Lighthouse. Local police and others quickly label the death a suicide.
Callie is not convinced and begins her own sleuthing as a reporter hungry for a good story. We soon learn that Callie’s mother was found dead at the bottom of the same lighthouse 26 years earlier, an incident that prompted her to flee the island as soon as she was old enough.
Now she is back.
The feelings she has tried to bury for so many years resurface in a mystery about coming home, finding roots and finally getting to a place where they bring pride and allow for reinvention of oneself.
Cozy mysteries are a sub-genre of crime fiction that leave out the violence, darkness and sex that often accompany more hard-boiled whodunits. Always fast-paced, and sometimes lighthearted, they put readers in working detective mode trying to solve the pending conundrum alongside the protagonist.
In Smile Beach Murder, the launch of the Outer Banks Bookshop Mystery series, Callie vows to Summer, the 12-year-old daughter of Eva Meeks, that she will leave no clue unturned as she explores old haunts and new twists in this summertime narrative.
Bessette, a former newspaper reporter, poet and pianist who moved to the Outer Banks with her husband and fellow author Matthew Quick, gives a nod to mystery writers such as Mary Higgins Clark by having her protagonist work at the MotherVine Bookshop. The poetry and music come out in Bessette’s writing.
When Callie bangs on the door of a papered-up old storefront not far from the MotherVine, and encounters Toby Dodge, a former physical education teacher who moved to the island to open the Cattail Family Martial Arts School, Bessette writes: “His voice was musical, like if an upright bass could speak.” Elsewhere she writes, “Outside dusk leaked from the sky, pewter dripping into apricot . . . “
Bessette captures the sense of the Outer Banks from the very beginning of the book. “This barrier island, nine miles long, is shaped like a cattail, whip thin except for the wide part, three miles across,” she writes. “The wide part’s where most of the dwellings are, bungalow-style rental cottages and modest cedar-shake stilt homes. The southern end of Cattail Island curves slightly westward, allowing a glimpse of the lighthouse even from where I sit in the Elder Tree.”
Whether we’re with Callie on the thick and all-knowing Spanish-moss-draped branches of the Elder Tree or on madcap adventures and treasure hunts, we smell the maritime forests, peer into the waters below the rickety fishing pier and get to know Cattail Island’s cast of flawed but lovable characters.
It’s easy to embrace Uncle Hudson, Ronnie and Antoinette, the bookstore owner — all members of a group that had adventures together in the Old Farts Van, a vehicle Hudson fixed up himself when he was a young surfer. Tin Man, the bookstore cat, is Insta-famous with a delightful Instagram account the whole town seems to follow.
We cheer Callie on as she climbs over the sharp, iron-speared gate to dig into the story that Pearleen, the wealthy woman in the mansion beyond the gate, and her dutiful nephew Whitman have kept to themselves for years. Indeed, she leads us to a big breakthrough — a reveal that truly is a surprise ending.
There are times when Callie breaks into buildings and ignores boundaries that typically would not be crossed by journalists. Then again, without her making quick assumptions, pushing boundaries and beating the police to the answer of whether the Cattail Lighthouse is cursed, we would lose access to an alluring mystery that keeps us hunting for answers to the very end. OH
Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.