Julia Snowden is back in “Steamed Open,” the seventh book in Barbara Ross’ Agatha nominated Maine Clambake mystery series. Julia has worked hard to bring the family Clambake business back from the brink of financial disaster, but a new threat challenges her problem-solving ability – the clams she needs for the Clambakes may no longer be readily available. This isn’t a matter of refinancing or getting a backer to underwrite a cash-strapped, seasonal business. The very character of the business itself is vulnerable to the baffling decision of one man.
The problem? Public entry to a prime clamming beach and the parking lot near it have been fenced off after local philanthropist, Lou (Heloise) Herrickson, passes away. Her heir, Bartholomew Frick, a very unpleasant distant relative of Lou’s, is not at all interested in the impact that decision has on the community – both tourists and business owners alike. He is only interested in selling the beachfront house and all its contents as quickly as possible. The professional clammers can’t dig up the clams and the dwindling supply is threatening to remove clam dishes from all the area seafood restaurants.
Frick winds up dead, killed with a clam rake, and Julia was the last person to see him alive – except for the killer. Who did it? Was it a frustrated local resident, a disgruntled neighbor, or an annoyed vacationer? Who will inherit the estate now since Frick died before a will could be written? Ross provides us with plenty of motives as well as a few feisty suspects and a complex side-plot that moves front and center as the story evolves.
Julia bends the rules a bit while looking for someone who would inherit the estate and return the beach access to what had gone before. She has a personal stake in the outcome, since every day without access to the beach creates difficulties for the business and her entire family. “Steamed Open” revisits the point that summer tourist businesses have a limited four- month window in which to earn the money to live on for the year. Not an easy place to exist, let alone thrive.
I spent many summers at beach towns on the USA East Coast and as Ross discusses in her book, public beach access is flatly denied in some oceanside communities and in some places, day passes can only be purchased at the police station. Regulations vary from town to town where the debate rages with loud, angry exchanges at the public and private meetings. It’s a choice between a source of revenue for the town and owners that don’t want their expensive beach fronts crowded with strangers that litter the sand and destroy the dunes. Compromises between the groups are hard to achieve in real life.
Julia’s relationship with her boyfriend, Chris, gets complicated in “Steamed Open.” He has his own secrets and while they have given each other plenty of space before, she now feels that if the two are going to continue to complement each other in business and as a couple, there has to be more openness. What Chris reveals will break your heart.
“Steamed Open” is a study in the necessity to get answers quickly before time runs out and everybody loses. A murder and a search for an heir that affects the entire community? High stakes investigations indeed and a great read, with Ross delivering a clever multi-layered plot, well-crafted continuing (and a few new) characters, and as always, wonderful recipes and that fabulous coastal Maine setting.
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Please visit http://www.maineclambakemysteries.com/ for more information about Ross, her appearances, and her other work.