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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, currently four-book series, builds off the last and draws us deeper into the endangered and fearsome lives of Coffin Cove’s venturesome journalist/sleuth, Andi Silvers, along with 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 Vancouver Island small-town smack.

Elliott doesn’t shy away from shining a spotlight on political, social, and economic issues common to small provincial towns—especially those whose livelihoods were based on the forestry and fishing industries. We find fishers vs. loggers vs. environmental greenies, as well as rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia. When the tide turns and raw materials are depleted, a town must adapt or die— a sentiment Mayor Jade Thompson wears etched across her forehead. Jade beat out one of the oldest boys in the club to spirit 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 which caused dangerous eddies from the strong tidal currents that ran through Seymour Narrows” in Discovery Passage. On April 5, 1958 the government blew it to bits. Also on that day, Randolph Weber rescued a young boy—an act that comes back to haunt him decades later when, at the age of one hundred, he’s 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, himself a journalist, disappears. The RCMP are hard into it 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 bash in their skull with a cast iron pot or stab them gleefully 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’ve just read all four murder mysteries—though not in order—and had no problem following along, although I drew visual mind maps to connect the characters like Elliott’s detectives do. Each chapter introduces a character with a full-on backstory that situates the reader in the midst of their life, their trauma, and their agenda. Elliott’s writing is fluid, sensory, and descriptive, and she has an excellent ear for dialogue. Moreover, you will 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 murder mystery writer runs through her veins. It’s where she began. Since marrying a Canadian West Coast fisherman in 2004, she’s become enamoured with the charm of Vancouver Island’s harbour towns. Book two 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 riveting cozy mystery series that won’t disappoint. The nautical lover in each of us will enjoy exploring Coffin Cove.

The Vile Narrows is published by Joffe Books.


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