Lowcountry Boil, Susan M. Boyer's first novel, packs a bewildering number of story lines and characters into its 400 or so pages. Liz Talbot grew up on Stella Maris Island, a coastal island near Charleston, South Carolina, accessible only by ferry or private boat. In the Carolina Low Country where "Protecting the land is a religion," the half dozen families who have owned most of Stella Maris since colonial times have jealously guarded it from the overdevelopment that plagues so many of the Atlantic barrier islands. Liz, who had left the island after her fiancé jilted her for her cousin, opened a private detective agency with her brother-in-law, Nate. While her marriage on the rebound to fellow islander Scott Taylor failed, the agency has prospered.
A startling midnight visit from Colleen Taylor (a childhood friend who drowned years earlier) urging Liz to go home is followed almost immediately by a call from her brother Blake, telling her that their grandmother has died in a fall.
When the will is read, Liz learns to her dismay that her grandmother has left her home and 300 acres of pristine island forest and beach to her. Afterwards Blake, who is police chief for the island, confides to Liz that their grandmother was actually murdered and her body posed at the bottom of a flight of steps. He is working on solving the case, but has no detective experience or staff––drunk driving and minor vandalism are the island's most common crimes. He wants Liz to go back to the city, but she is determined to stay and help find her grandmother's murderer, so she and her dog Rhett move into her newly inherited house.
When her sister Merry, a social worker, calls to tell Liz that she is joining an organization that plans to build a camp for young urban gang members convicted of violent crimes on the island––in hope that the tranquility and lack of city temptations will mellow their attitudes––the horrified Liz realizes the extent to which she has been trapped by her inheritance. She must now become one of the island's protectors against ill-thought-out development.
This is a real Southern story; a little supernatural, a dash of romance, quite a bit of low-key humor, and a decent mystery with a few surprises. Everyone knows and has history with everyone else in the small close-knit community, and the ancestral land must be protected at all costs. I had some difficulty keeping the players straight, despite the author's thoughtfully provided cast of characters. After the extensive build-up in this first book, I hope for a series set on this unspoiled coastal island, where the smells of surf and pine mingle with the coppery scent of bloody murder.
Faye earns a meager living as Field Supervisor on Magda's archaeological digs in the area, but to fund the repairs and pay the taxes on Joyeuse she had to turn to pot hunting, the illegal digging and sale of artifacts from public lands. One day, digging on an island that had been separated from her land by a hurricane, and taken by the National Park Service, she finds a skeleton, and next to it an expensive and distinctive earring. She is at a loss. If she notifies the police of the discovery she risks arrest; if not, a murderer goes free.
Fay has solicited the willing help of an environmentally friendly Congressman to help her regain possession of the separated island, before the government permits development of the land. But favors from politicians always come with a cost, and Faye has failed to reckon the reason for and price of his support. Joyeuse will survive the coming hurricane as it always has, but others may not be so lucky.
For now, I think I'll continue my tropical theme with a couple of old Travis McGee mysteries (love his Busted Flush!) while the bread rises. Remember, if you're sick, stay home and cosset yourself. You deserve it, and besides, there's no need to share the wealth!