Tide Water Talisman by Glynn Marsh Alam
(Momento Mori Mysteries, Avocet Press, Paperback, 237 pp., $12.95)
Reviewed by Mary Jane Ryals
Last week, a friend and I spent the morning on the Florida coast that writer Glynn Marsh Alam uses in her latest Luanne Fogarty mystery, Tide Water Talisman. The story sits somewhere along the north Florida coast. Alam herself says it's where the Ochlockonee, St. Marks and Apalachicola Rivers meet the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico.
My friend and I haunted a coastal restaurant which claimed “OPEN” on the sign, but was shut tight as a mason jar. We passed the River of Life, a five thousand square foot building that's a blow-up balloon looking church. We drove past miles of sabal palms mixed with sand oaks and tall pines, and we paid $2.50 for eggs, grits, toast at a tiny diner. We eavesdropped on dialogues like “You ever see ole Al?” and “I wasn't raised to leave nothing on the plate.” We even heard about an ancient Indian dugout that juts up out of the black mud on a certain local river at very low tides..
It's no wonder Alam has chosen such a place and characters to write from. Alam loves and thus understands the sacred and the profane of the rough, spirited people who have lived on this part of the gulf for at least a century. Alam opens the story and pulls you right in, the way the sabal palms and experts on grits eating can.
Because of the way she captures place and character, it's also no wonder she won the Florida Book Awards Gold Medal for Popular Fiction with Moon Water Madness, the seventh book in this series. In Tide Water Talisman, narrator Luanne's first words admit, “I hate death in any form.” She plucks a twangy north Florida start with, “It leaves a hole like when a trusty old fence post is jerked from the ground."
From here, you're pulled into the mystery. Luanne, linguistics professor and adjunct scuba diver for the local sheriff's department is boat-riding with the ancient Cajun salty dog Dorian Pasquin and hefty-hipped “Mama” who owns the restaurant “Mama's Place.” They're delivering an espresso maker to a new restaurant owner, but along the way Pasquin discovers that his old buddy Jimpson has gone missing. Next, two sheriff's boats cruise up and retrieve a group of men from the nearby forest carrying “a stretcher with something covered in black.” Luanne says “it didn't take much to realize it was a body."
The rag tag refugees” from the Katrina hurricane have decided to rebuild their lives where they landed, making a brave new start with their businesses at the old Heavenly Motel and living at a nearby fish camp. This group includes an old Vietnam vet trying for peace as a junk store owner and a fortune teller who “accidentally” predicts the death of a fisherman. She and her husband from “up north” seem to have no past, but stake a claim wherever they can. Another character, a woman with a heavy-drinking husband, is determined to start her own restaurant despite him.
Also, there's a faux new-agey woman with a crystal shop, a fat private eye and a seducer of women, all of whom seem not to want to reveal their pasts, and provide plenty of whodunit intrigue as well as laughs. Alam balances tragedy and comic reality nicely, and she seems to be having great fun with the new age hooey in this novel without discounting a sense of how mysterious humans really are and what makes them tick.
Meanwhile, quiet solver of many gulf mysteries Luanne and her boyfriend, the sheriff's deputy Vernon Drake, have to set up camp at the travel trailer park by the Heavenly Motel. Around them all the characters broil and tumble and drink and have secret lovers and former business partners and the stuff that haunts them.
We're always driven to find out what really gives here. Yet it's the full rich characters with their dramas and troubles that win our hearts. Alam does a wonderful job of placing us inside the lives of the displaced persons from the Katrina trauma. With a big heart, this writer also gives a nod in her author's note to the folks who work on the gulf who have seen yet another anguish in the BP oil spill this summer. Tide Water Talisman was written beforehand, but Alam has not forgotten them. We'll see what's next from her on oil spills and murders on the Forgotten Coast.
Mary Jane Ryals, teaches business communication at Florida State University and is Poet Laureate of the Big Bend of Florida. Her novel Cookie and Me and her poetry collection The Moving Waters are published by Kitsune Books. She's working on a novel set in the north Florida gulf coast.