Book Review: Smile Beach Murder by Alicia Bessette

Smile Beach Murder by Alicia Bessette marks the start of a new series featuring Callie Padget, a former reporter turned bookshop clerk in the Outer Banks who is pulled into a deadly web of secrets when a mysterious fall at a lighthouse echoes a tragedy from her past.

Callie Padget is still feeling emotionally fragile about her return to Cattail Island, where she grew up on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Alas, after being let go as a journalist from the Charlotte newspaper she’d worked for, she has few other options. Her Uncle Hudson welcomes her home with open arms, readying her old bedroom for her to inhabit once more, so at least her living situation is accounted for. Unfortunately, jobs aren’t quite as easy to come by, even as Callie pretends that occasionally updating her blog is enough to count as resume-building.

When averting a potentially fatal accident leads to her becoming employed at the MotherVine Bookstore, Callie is both happy to be working again and sad to be so sharply reminded of her late mother, who had brought her there to spend many happy hours together. Teri Padgett had been a seamstress who was an aficionado of Mary Higgins Clark, and who passed on her love of mysteries to her daughter. MotherVine’s owner, Antoinette Redfield, is an old friend, and is delighted to have Callie working for her.

Other old friends seem a little more distant, though that could very well be due to Callie’s own choice to turn her back almost entirely on the island when she left. Eva Meeks, owner of the local hardware store, is one of the islanders on the friendly side. She comes to the MotherVine one day in search of a book that might help with her favorite pastime—treasure hunts—after finding something that points her in the direction of the Smile Beach lighthouse. Unthinkingly, she invites Callie to come with her. She instantly takes it back when she remembers that the reason Callie was so intent on leaving the island in the first place is the fact that Callie’s mother died in a fall from that very same lighthouse when Callie was just a kid.

So when Callie finds out the next day that Eva too has fallen to her death from the top of the lighthouse, she’s immediately stricken. Not only is it almost a quarter-century to the day since her mother died. A more grown-up guilt strikes her now: if she’d gone with Eva, could she have saved the other woman from dying?

Police Chief Drew Jurecki is uninterested in dealing with her when she arrives at the scene, noting fairly: 

“Not to be harsh, but I can’t deal with emotions right now. There’ll be enough of that when I inform the next of kin.”


Next of kin.


Georgia. And Summer, Eva’s daughter. Eva had been forty-one years old, I knew. Which meant Summer was…twelve.


Just like my mom had been forty-one when she died, and I’d been twelve.

This is too much coincidence for Callie to ignore. When Chief Jurecki rules Eva’s death a suicide, the case is officially closed. Callie, however, refuses to leave it alone. She used to be an investigative reporter back in the city, and her instincts are telling here that there’s far more to this story than a “simple” suicide. After Summer seeks her out in order to share what Eva had been looking for on the night she died, Callie discovers a brand new angle from which to investigate: had Eva died because someone had been desperate to prevent her from solving the clues of an ancient treasure hunt?

Even as she pursues this new lead, her complicated emotions have her worrying that she’s really doing all this for herself. It would be one thing if she was searching for closure for the teenage girl she used to be, who was scarred by her mother’s death. Instead, she can’t help but wonder whether she’s also using the tragedy as her ticket out of Cattail once more. Fortunately, her Uncle Hudson is there to help straighten her out:

“This riddle means Eva climbed the lighthouse with a purpose,” he said. “A purpose other than jumping. Somebody’s got to set the record straight.”


The record.


My plan to write up Eva’s death suddenly seemed ill-conceived, despite my honorable intentions. How could I even think about advancing my career while Georgia and Summer’s loss was clinging to me like smoke from a campfire, permeating my pores?


No. In no way did I want to risk exploiting or upsetting the Meeks family by writing about them. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.


But–as Hudson had just reminded me–the record.

Alicia Bessette’s debut mystery novel is a sensitive tale of a reporter coming home to face her demons and, hopefully, lay them to rest. I wasn’t super thrilled by the way Callie rushed to judgment at times, but appreciated how Ms. Bessette used those moments to show her heroine’s fallibility. That’s a good sign for an on-going series, as Callie learns to embrace her present and come to terms with her past, while solving crimes in the process.

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