UW-Madison professors emeriti Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden must be having a wonderful time researching and writing their mystery series. It certainly is a lot of fun reading their books.
The authors are out with their second mystery featuring Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler. This one takes place on the northern California coast — plus a wee bit in Madison. Their descriptions of the rugged California coastline around Bodega Bay, the spectacular but treacherous Highway 1, and even the local restaurants are spot on. So is their characterization of State Street and Madison. And their several digs at Gov. Scott Walker won't go unnoticed by Madison readers.
There's a lot going on in the plot. Toby has recently taken on a new business partner, Charlie. A body found in a long-stranded boat in Bodega Bay — often used as a make-out place by teens — turns out to be Charlie's.
Charlie, like Toby an antiques and collectibles dealer, had just purchased a wooden panel bearing the painting of an angel at an auction in San Francisco. The icon was billed as one-third of a triptych. After Charlie's body is discovered, Toby realizes it is no longer in its place on the wall of their shared shop.
What's the icon's significance? Did it lead to Charlie's murder? And where are the other two-thirds?
Nora, an art historian, becomes involved — Bodega Bay is a small town, and Nora and Toby are friends with Dan, the officer investigating the killing. After Toby finds the icon Charlie had purchased hidden in a piece of furniture in the shop, Nora meets with her former professor at UC-Berkeley and learns that the man who can best help authenticate the artwork is a disgruntled MATC instructor in Madison. During Nora's discussions with her Berkeley prof and later with the Madison art expert, the reader is treated to just the right amount of information about how religious icons are authenticated and restored.
Nora heads to Madison with the painting. But before she does, upsetting events occur in Bodega Bay, leading to several suspects. There's a Russian with a gold tooth, a second Russian who believes the icon should have been willed to him, a man with a grudge about Charlie's gambling debts, and a former lover who was hurt by Charlie's free-spirited lifestyle and tendency to borrow money he couldn't pay back.
Nora's sister, Angie, is paying a visit. She's a gorgeous hairdresser who is searching for meaning in her life. She visits an angel guide — after all, this is northern California. She's trying to get in touch with her personal guardian angel, and even skeptical Nora ends up having a spiritual experience. The people in Angie's circle play a role in the mystery's resolution, and Angie's presence adds some interesting philosophical conversations to the book's dialogue.
No book set in Bodega Bay would be complete without reference to it as the location where Alfred Hitchcock filmed "The Birds," and "The Body in Bodega Bay" doesn't disappoint. There's a fair amount of interesting Hitchcock trivia, and storyboards from the movie end up providing invaluable clues.
If you are a mystery buff, or enjoy the northern California coast, be sure this book is on your summer reading list.