“Return to Sender” by Robert M. Chute; Just Write Books, Topsham, Maine, 2011; 154 pages, perfect bound, $19.95.
Over in Wyman Falls, Maine, circa 1950, things are normally pretty quiet.
In the summer, people enjoy Long Pond, which stretches across the northwestern border with Quebec. In the winter they hunker down until the snow starts to recede. Jefferson County Sheriff Alphonse Dumont and Deputy Buddy Brackett are not inordinately busy.
But when Tony Janus, who is from away, like we say, turns up dead on the lakeshore, there are CSI-like signs that what looks like an accidental drowning may not have been quite so simple. For one thing, his sister, Melonie Janus, who visits town shortly afterward, while likable and befriended by some of the locals, also acts kind of peculiarly. For another thing, the town simpleton, Runner Higgens, eventually turns up dead too in a way that just does not square with Runner’s well-known routines and habits. And Tony’s wealthy and powerful friend from away, whose number Melonie believes she has, also causes some head scratching.
The sheriff, district attorney and a boy with a couple of scientifically detailed questions put their minds to the oddities, and Melonie, who is the default protagonist of the novel, eventually is revealed to be quite a bit weirder than anybody — including herself and possibly even the story’s narrator — realizes. She writes some pretty strange notes to her dead brother, and moreover, she mails them.
The general atmosphere of Robert Chute’s “Return to Sender” is a lot like that of the old “Murder She Wrote” TV show. Wyman Falls could be an inland Crabapple Cove, with likable and quirky Maine characters leading low-key soap-operaish lives of their own on the edges of the murder mystery. But this book has a few edges, too, concerning homosexuality, a husband missing at war, and Melonie Janus’ multidimensionally weird behavior.
“Return to Sender,” a sequel to Chute’s “Coming Home,” is a well-written, generally well-paced book of twists and turns, pleasant good humor and some insight into the nooks and crannies of midcentury life in small-town Maine. While the major strands of the plot come together in the end, a few loose ends imply a third novel in the sequence may be coming. This book makes nice reading on lazy afternoons while you’re waiting for the snow to go away.
Robert Chute, professor emeritus in biology from Bates College, lives in Poland and is the author of several volumes of poetry, including “Wildness within Walking Distance” and “Cat Tails.” His blog, “ A Poet on the Verge of Science,” is at http://scientificpoet.blogspot.com. “Return to Sender” is available from online book sellers.