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The Vile Narrows by Jackie Elliott

Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin

If you've never read Jackie Elliott's Coffin Cove cozy mysteries, you're in for a salty treat. Each story in this four-book series builds on the last, drawing us deeper into the perilous and terrifying lives of Coffin Cove's intrepid journalist/sleuth, Andi Silvers, and her friends and neighbours. Imagine Murder, She Wrote liberally sprinkled with the grit and ferocity of The Shipping News, then nuanced with the history and atmosphere of small-town Vancouver Island.

Elliott doesn't shy away from shining a spotlight on the political, social, and economic issues common to small provincial towns—especially those whose livelihoods were based on the forestry and fishing industries. We find fishermen vs. loggers vs. environmentalists, as well as rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia. When the tide turns and the resources run out, a town must adapt or die, a sentiment that Mayor Jade Thompson has etched into her forehead. Jade beat out one of the oldest boys in the club to bring Coffin Cove-a small town near Nanaimo—into the 21st century, despite almost dying herself. Now she's turning the fish plant into a trendy tourist attraction and organizing an Indigenous cultural centre on offshore Hope Island—both gestures that have the locals pointing pitchforks.

The Vile Narrows refers to a treacherous stretch of sea bordering Quadra Island that hid Ripple Rock, "an underwater mountain with two peaks that created dangerous eddies from the strong tidal currents that flowed through Seymour Narrows" in Discovery Passage. On April 5, 1958, the government blew it up. Also on that day, Randolph Weber rescued a young boy—an act that would come back to haunt him decades later when, at the age of one hundred, he is murdered in his home on Quadra Island. Soon after, his son, archaeologist Gerald Weber, is murdered in Coffin Cove. Seeing an obvious connection, Andi Silvers sends a young reporter to Quadra to parse out the story for the Gazette. Meanwhile, a psychopath from earlier in the series resurfaces in Coffin Cove, and Andi's father, a journalist himself, disappears. The RCMP are hard at work as Elliott piles body on body with the precision of the most intimate executioner. Her murders are brutal and visceral. Why shoot someone when you can smash their skull in with a cast-iron pot or stab them multiple times with a homemade knife?

Elliott's strength lies in her ability to twist fact and fiction, past and present, into a pretzel of a tale. I just read all four murder mysteries—though not in order—and had no problem following along, even though I drew visual mind maps to connect the characters, just as Elliott's detectives do. Each chapter introduces a character with a full backstory that puts the reader in the middle of their lives, traumas, and agendas. Elliott's writing is fluid, sensory and descriptive, and she has an excellent ear for dialogue. You'll also learn things like the difference between a purse seiner and a packer, and what it's like to live aboard a boat in January.

Elliott writes with all the earthy charm of Anne Cleeves—perhaps the blood of the gritty English mystery writer runs in her veins. That's where she started. Since marrying a fisherman from Canada's West Coast in 2004, she's fallen in love with the charm of Vancouver Island's harbour towns. The second book in this series, Hell's Half Acre, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada 2022 Whodunit Award for Best Traditional Mystery. Take a chance on this compelling cozy mystery series that won't disappoint. The nautical enthusiast in all of us will enjoy exploring Coffin Cove.

The Vile Narrows is published by Joffe Books.


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