Spring suspense: New Maine books full of mystery and mayhem

Posted April 09, 2013, at 2:22 p.m.

Make room this spring for a little murder and mystery — a thread that runs through many recently published books with Maine ties.

If you enjoy spine-tingling tales, the stories that have you searching through pages for hidden clues, here a few titles you may want to check out, starting with a mystery that spans decades and takes a fresh look at revenge and what it means to be a killer.

“Villa Triste,” by Lucretia Grindle, January 2013, Grand Central Publishing, 640 pages, paperback, $14.99; ebook, $8.89.

Gods and heroes tower over Italian piazzas, demanding the audience of tourists walking between famous museums and ancient ruins. With so much beauty and history to see in Italy’s great cities — the grand columns and Renaissance statues — a dull plaque on a wall easily goes unnoticed.

Fortunately, Lucretia Grindle, a Blue Hill novelist and a frequent traveler, has a sharp eye and a writer’s curious mind. These humble memoriams inspired her to write “Villa Triste,” a fascinating work of historical fiction released to U.S. bookstores in January.

“I’ve always been into history,” she said. “My mother is half Apache, and they have an incredible oral tradition. She was an incredible storyteller. You go to a place, look at it and think, ‘What happened here?’”

The plaques that piqued her interest were not in dedication to saints or famous people. Instead, they were in honor of the anonymous and seldom celebrated — the secretive group of Italian partisans who resisted German occupation during World War II.

“They were so well organized and incredibly effective,” Grindle said of the partisans. “They chose to fight [the Germans] on all fronts, including assassination attempts. They made a calculated decision to make Italy as uncomfortable as they could possibly make it for the Germans to be in.”

More than 200,000 Italians were formally recognized as members of the Resistance, and approximately 55,000 of those were women — 35,000 of whom were named as “partigiani combattenti,” or partisan fighters — a statistic Grindle found intriguing, given her love for female heroines.

Grindle’s novel is about the two Cammaccio sisters, young women who become part of the Resistance in Florence from 1943 to 1945. At the beginning of the story, Caterina is enduring the final fitting for her wedding dress and her younger sister, Isabella, is about to begin her last year at the university. But when the German occupation begins, their plans rapidly change as they’re forced to decide how they will sustain the war as winter deepens.

The novel then flips to present-day Florence to follow Inspector Alessandro Pallioti in his most recent investigation, the murder of a celebrated partisan, now an elderly man, in his home. In order to catch the killer before another hero becomes a victim, Pallioti must reach back in time to unlock secrets of the past — and the Cammaccio sisters may hold the key.

Although the principle characters in “Villa Triste” are fictitious, they are inspired by the lives and deeds of real people, Italian partisans Grindle read about or interviewed.

“It wasn’t easy. I did a lot of grubbing in newspaper archives,” said Grindle. She also utilized aural archives of partisans’ testimonies and visited small museums in Italian towns.

“Everything in Villa Triste actually happened, down to the dates of the ally bombings,” Grindle said, “Everything that happened to them happened to someone I came across.”

“Villa Triste” is the first in a trilogy of novels that focuses on pivotal events in 20th century Italy, resurrected present-day inventions by Inspector Pallioti.

“Pallioti — he’s my guy,” she said. “He’s kind of my ideal man.”

The second book of the trilogy, “The Lost Daughter,” (about the Red Brigades in the 1970s) is already out in Canada, and is set to be released in the U.S. next year. Grindle is working on the third book, which focuses on Italy’s Second Mafia War, also referred to as the “Mattanza,” Italian for “The Slaughter.”

To learn more about the series, visit fantasticfiction.co.uk/g/lucretia-w-grindle/.

“Reese’s Leap: An Island Mystery,” by Darcy Scott, April 2013, Maine Authors Publishing, 229 pages, paperback, $14.95; ebook, $3.99.

In the sequel to 2012’s award-winning mystery novel “Matinicus,” five friends travel to Mistake Island for their annual women-only retreat of sunbathing, kayaking, seaside yoga and plenty of wine. But right away, things don’t go as planned. First, the women are annoyed by an unexpected visit by Dave Duggan, boyfriend of one of the five women, and his buddy Gil Hodges — the novel’s protagonist, a bachelor botanist struggling with a pile of failed romances and a fondness for hard liquor.

When the fog rolls in, trapping the two men on the island, everyone tries to make the best of the situation, which only seems to be getting worse when a creepy, cross-bow-toting stranger emerges from the woods, bent on some kind of revenge. Hodges instantly becomes leader in the group’s effort to get the threatening stranger off the island. But no one understands the extent of their predicament until the fog clears and a startling discovery forces them to accept that not everyone will make it off the island alive.

Author Darcy Scott is a sailor and experienced ocean cruiser who lives much of the year on her sailboat in Maine. Her passion for the history and natural, rugged beauty of Maine’s islands serve as inspiration for her Maine Island Mystery Series, “Matinicus” (2012), “Reese’s Leap” (2013) and “Ragged Island,” her current project. Learn more at darcyscott.net.

“Final Settlement,” by Vicki Doudera, April 8, 2013, Midnight Ink, 336 pages, paperback, $14.99, ebook, $11.99.

Camden resident Vicki Doudera, a luxury real estate broker, takes the mystery genre and gives it a personal twist in the Darby Farr Mystery Series, which she labels as “real estate mysteries.” In her fourth and most recent novel, “Final Settlement,” released to bookstores in early April, protagonist Darby Farr returns to Maine for the wedding of her associate Tina Ames. But to the wedding party’s dismay, the mood of the venue, Hurricane Harbor, is dampened by the news of an accidental drowning. And it isn’t long before Farr uncovers evidence that points to foul play and takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of it.

Doudera lives with her family in Camden. Her debut novel, “A House to Die For,” was selected to the Best of 2010 list in Suspense Magazine, and her articles have appeared in Parenting, People, Reader’s Digest, Yankee and Down East magazines. To learn more, visit vickidoudera.com.

“Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding: An Antique Print Mystery,” by Lea Wait, April 2013, Perseverance Press, 240 pages, paperback, $14.95.

With her best friend’s wedding on the horizon, Maggie Summers visits Cape Cod to help with preparations. But soon after arriving, she’s pulled into a murder investigation as a counselor and interpreter. She’s got a lot on her plate, but is it enough to avoid an important discussion with the man she loves? Before she has time for any real self-reflection, she becomes the elusive killer’s target.

The novel’s author, Lea Wait, has been an antiques dealer since 1977. She lives in Maine with her husband and they are the parents of four adopted daughters, now grown. Her six-book mystery series about Maggie Summer has received the Agatha Award, awarded annually by Malice Domestic Ltd., to honor traditional mystery. Wait has also published four Maine-based books for ages 8-14. For information, visit leawait.com.

“The Fine Art of Murder,” by John Noel Chandler, March 2013, Maine Authors Publishing, 188 pages, paperback, $14.95.

A murder is committed in a Boston art gallery, and art critic Winthrop Eliot has a theory — that the crime was committed to be a work of fine art in itself. But can he convince law enforcement to rule out typical motives and view the killing in a new light?

This is the debut novel of Joel Noel Chandler, who has written about contemporary art for more than 40 years as a contributing editor of Art International, Artscanada, Art New England and other publications. He was inspired to write his first crime novel by the artwork of his friend Colette White, and even uses her as a character. Chandler has also worked as gallery director and chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and director of nonprofit arts institutions in Massachusetts and Maine.