Death Rides the Ferry
Patricia Skalka/208 pages, University of Wisconsin Press, 2018
For readers with a logical turn of mind, it is bliss is to sit by the fireside and read a well-written mystery novel – a book with a valiant hero or heroine, a mysterious murder, the theft of a priceless object, a psychopathic villain, and a well-reasoned solution. Such readers have a treat in store for them when they pick up a copy of Death Rides the Ferry, written by Patricia Skalka and published by the University of Wisconsin Press. The hero is Dave Cubiak, an officer who any reasonable citizen would support in an election for sheriff – intelligent, dependable, strong both physically and mentally, firm but compassionate.
But, like many modern protagonists, Cubiak is plagued by inner demons. For one thing, he is “skittish around water and leery of boats” – an inconvenient phobia for a man who has undertaken to be sheriff of Door County. In addition, he has not recovered from the death of his wife and daughter – killed in an automobile accident by a drunken driver – and he probably will never recover completely. However, Cubiak is not one to brood or wallow in self-pity; he gets on with his life as best he can. He has married again and is devoted to his second wife, Cate, a talented photographer. But he is taken aback when Cate cheerfully announces that she is pregnant. During Cate’s first marriage, she suffered two miscarriages that left her crushed and suicidal. Her doctor warned her not to try a third time. Cate herself has no qualms; after all, the practice of medicine has improved considerably since her last miscarriage. But Cubiak is understandably reluctant to risk a second loss of both wife and child.
He has little time to worry, however, because he has a serious investigation on his hands. Years ago Washington Island had been the scene of the Viola Da Gamba Music Festival, an event that featured rare antique instruments known as viols. The festival ended in disaster when a young woman died and the rarest, most valuable of the viols disappeared without a trace. Since then, 40 years have passed, and the viol musicians assume it would be safe to try another festival on Washington Island. After all these years, only a hopelessly superstitious person would expect trouble. The viols themselves are considered beautiful, but Cubiak is unimpressed; he thinks a viol looks like “a stunted cello with swollen glands.”
The festival begins promisingly, and the lawns are soon filled with happy people in bright costumes – and one woman who sits alone on a rock. She is wearing ragged, dirty clothes and clutching a faded patchwork bag, and she looks half-starved. Cubiak decides to buy her a milkshake or a huge piece of pie, but the woman disappears into a crowd of people waiting to board the ferry. Then, before Cubiak can finish his lunch, he is summoned to action. The shabby woman has reappeared in the ferry lounge, slumped upon a table and smelling of garlic. She is dead, and her patchwork bag has vanished.
As Cubiak pursues his investigation, he encounters more mysteries, more strange characters, and more murders. He finds clues that only darken the many secrets. No one is safe, not even Cubiak’s beloved Cate and her unborn child. The last 80 pages find Cubiak involved in a daring mission and readers will turn these pages without pausing.
Skalka understands the requirements of a classic mystery novel. She writes in a readable style, without awkwardness or ostentation. Characters die, but Skalka keeps the gore to a minimum. A modern mystery is often set in an attractive location, a place that a reader might like to visit. Skalka uses the Door County location to good effect. There are no lush descriptions of golden sunsets and rippling blue waters; instead the characters themselves reveal the setting as they go about their business. They ride ferries, drive past the villages, and view Lake Michigan through the broad windows of their living rooms. At least one of these people is hiding a deadly secret.
For a writer of mysteries, one of most difficult tasks is characterization. A mystery novel requires a sizeable number of suspects, and readers may have difficulty keeping track of them all. Characters named Jane Newberry and Adam Browning turn up, and the reader wonders who they are and where they were last seen. Charles Dickens, Suzanne Collins, and J.K. Rowling solve this problem by making their characters memorably eccentric and giving them peculiar names, but suspects in a murder mystery are never called Filius Flitwick, Uriah Heep, or Caesar Flickerman. Other writers provide a list of characters before the first chapter, causing readers to do a lot of page-flipping. Skalka uses neither method, but she manages better than most at making her characters memorable. Mystery-lovers will be delighted by Death Rides the Ferry.