Clammed Up by Barbara Ross is the debut of a new cozy mystery series set in coastal Maine, featuring struggling family-businessowner Julie Snowden, a killer at a wedding party, and traditional seafood and clambake recipes (available September 3, 2013).
Clammed Up by Barbara Ross has a lot going for it. It’s a brilliantly set up and cleverly executed mystery. It’s a book that perfectly captures the sights, sounds, and feel of small-town Maine. And it contains what look to be some truly killer recipes for a number of New England culinary classics (lobster mac and cheese, anyone?).
If I had to pick just one way to characterize it, though, it would be this: Clammed Up by Barbara Ross is a master class in character development.
To a person, the cast members who populate Ross’ fictional town of Busman’s Harbor read like they stepped straight off the coast and onto the page. How does she accomplish this? With a variety of techniques actually. Some are simple, like this metaphor, which succeeds on almost too many levels to count:
When Paul Simon sang that orangutans were skeptical about changes in their environments, he'd described my brother-in-law perfectly. Sonny even had the flaming orange hair and barrel chest to go along with his deep suspicion of anything new or different.
Not only is this description funny and succinct, it’s remarkably effective; you walk away from it with a vivid picture of Sonny’s appearance and knowing exactly what kind of a person he is. Pretty impressive for 40 words, no?
Other methods are more subtle and complex. For example, I really admire how Ross uses setting to establish character. Check out this scene in which we’re introduced to my very favorite Busman’s Harbor resident, Gus:
Gus’s restaurant had an old gas pump with a round top out front, like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Inside, you climbed down a long set of stairs into the main room where you found a candlepin-bowling lane on your left and a lunch counter on your right. In back was a dining room with the best view of Busman’s Harbor anywhere.
Gus looked up from the grill when I walked in and growled, “Get out. No strangers.” He was governed by the same public accommodation laws as any restaurant owner, but nevertheless had an ironclad rule. He didn't serve diners unless he knew them personally or someone he did know could vouch for them. I have no idea how he got away with it.
“Gus, I’m Julia. Julia Snowden. I’ve been coming here all my life. For goodness sake, I was born here in the harbor.”
Gus looked at me appraisingly. “Now Jul-ya, just because kittens are born in the oven don’t make them biscuits.” But then he said, ”What’ll ya have?” and I knew I was in.
The description of Gus’s restaurant tells you as much about Gus himself as it does his eatery. You read that, and Gus springs to life in your mind, fully fleshed and in vivid Technicolor. You can see him, you can hear him, and what’s more, you feel like you know him. (And if you’re anything like me, you absolutely adore him and want a flesh-and-blood version of him to set up shop in your hometown. I love me a good curmudgeon.)
Perhaps the most stunning bit of writing in the entire book, however, is this brief vignette detailing how Julia came to return to Busman’s Harbor:
The night before Livvie had called me to come home and save the clambake, I'd been in an airport, as usual. I was exhausted from the travel and the time zones and the stress. With an hour between flights, I'd gone to the gate before my second flight started boarding, sat directly across from the counter, and thought I'd just close my eyes.
I woke up hours later. My plane was gone. In fact, all the planes were gone. The area of the terminal where I sat was half in darkness. Half a football field away, a cleaner polished the floor with a machine. He was the only other human I could see.
I grabbed the phone to check the time. It was after midnight. On my birthday. No one had missed me. Not a living soul on the earth knew where I was, and I knew then that I had to change my life. But I didn't have a clue how or to what.
Livvie's call came the next day.
Until that very moment sitting in Gus's truck, I thought I'd come home to rescue them. Instead, without even intending it, they had rescued me.
This one short scene tells you everything you need to know about who Julia used to be. Ross doesn’t need to spend pages and pages telling you all the assorted and sundry details of Julia’s former life—she shows you with a single snapshot of what that life did to Julia. That’s all, and that’s enough. And can we talk about that closing paragraph? Positively jaw-dropping, right? Those two simple sentences do a book’s worth of work. They’re the Rosetta stone to Ross’s protagonist. You read them, and you know exactly what coming home has meant to her—how it has changed her. And just like that, every single one of Julia’s words, thoughts, actions, and intentions makes perfect sense.
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Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.