Ski Diva’s Vermont Mysteries Take Readers for a Wild Spin
Reviewed by Gabriella West
Self-described ski bum Stacey Curtis flees to a small ski resort in Vermont to get over a bad breakup, but ends up finding a corpse with a chainsaw chain wrapped around his neck in an empty condo. She covertly ends up investigating his murder. Within the first few pages of Double Black (Ski Diva Mystery), Wendy Clinch’s gripping debut mystery novel, we realize we are in the hands of a tough and unsentimental writer who knows this small New England town terrain all too well.
Wendy is the founder of TheSkiDiva.com, a forum for women skiers. The narrative moves at a fast pace: Stacey gets a job at the Broken Binding, a local bar/restaurant. She initially sleeps in her car during the freezing Vermont nights, but decides to rent a room from Guy Ramsey, the town’s sheriff, as she’s scared she’s being followed by someone. The sense of unease, of Stacey being hunted as well as being the hunter, continues throughout the book, as we realize that the dead man is David Paxton, the younger son of the ski resort’s wealthy owner, and that Stacey may very well be consorting with the killer as she goes about her daily business tending bar.
Twenty-something Stacey is tough, sometimes rather glib, and pragmatic in personality. What comes through in Double Black, ironically, is how much of a diva she isn’t. The book is narrated in third person, and sometimes switches point of view, and there isn’t much chance for the reader to cozy up to Stacey. (It wasn’t believable at all to me that Stacey has an M.A. in Art History from some New England college.) Her routine seems to be very basic: survival, getting over her unfaithful boyfriend, Brian (but she doesn’t lick her wounds much), becoming friendly with a ski patrol guy called Chip Walsh, doing her job at the bar, going skiing … and in her spare time trying to find out who killed David Paxton.
Vermont is often stereotyped as sweet, rural and quaint. The real punch of this book comes in Wendy’s cool-eyed assessment of social friction in this peaceful state (a place with only 12 murders a year, the sheriff muses at one point!). However, readers expecting any sweetness are in for a surprise. The terse (sometimes too terse) dialogue and judgments like the following leave a slightly sour taste, as if Wendy, a “flatlander” (newcomer to Vermont) herself, is quietly settling grudges:
“The Green Mountain State, [Stacey had] been quick to realize, was like some remote island in the South Seas, in that it had two classes of people: natives whose families had lived here forever, and a mixed bag of refugees who washed up on its banks after their luck had run out somewhere else.”
Add to this mix the most repellent character, a homeless Vietnam vet who follows Stacey around and keeps trying to tell law enforcement and anyone who cares that she’s the killer, because he thinks he saw her exiting the dead man’s condo. When the killer finally is identified, it’s a surprise, and yet Wendy has built up the aura of nastiness and mistrust to such a level that it’s really not.
But the suspenseful atmosphere and the intricate plot are what will drive readers to this top-notch mystery, not depth of character.
Cut to Fade to White, the sequel to Double Black, and what we have is a book of remarkable consistency with the first one. This time, we open with has-been movie star Harper Stone filming a commercial on the slopes of Stacey’s ski resort. To her horror, while out for a run on an otherwise perfect day, Stacey sees that her narcissistic ex-fiancé, Brian, is among the film crew. While Stacey tries to keep her distance from Brian, she can’t, because he and the crew end up dining at her restaurant, the Broken Binding, and he wants her back in his life. Stacey, of course, staunchly fends him off, and then Harper Stone doesn’t show up on set and is pronounced missing. In an eerie scene, Brian makes his way through deep snow to the isolated house where Stone is staying, finds no one there, and discovers that the house has been completely trashed and a coffee table smeared with a mysterious white powder, most likely cocaine.
Once again, Stacey finds the corpse. In a dramatic scene, she and buddy Chip are out for a late-night run on the slopes when she literally skies over her frozen face and takes a tumble. Chip’s reaction to this event, vomiting and anxiety, is actually more pronounced than Stacey’s. There’s plenty of unease and suspense in this follow-up, and it could be said that it’s a more fun read than Double Black, because this time Stacey practically teams up with Sheriff Guy Ramsey to find the killer. The “unpleasant local character” in the second novel is provided by memorably nasty ski shop owner Buddy Frommer, proprietor of the Slippery Slope, whom Stacey has spied huddling with Harper Stone in a drug deal before the actor’s disappearance. When questioned by the sheriff, though, Frommer convincingly denies he ever met Stone.
In the hands of another writer, there would be angst and jealousy between Brian, Chip Walsh and Stacey, but Stacey’s mind, and the novel’s plot, stays resolutely on the murder mystery. Despite the well-drawn poetic descriptions and colorful scenes of local life, I wondered why there wasn’t more sexual tension in the book. I found it unlikely that a woman in her 20s would be so cool and detached. Chip Walsh seemed like a potential boyfriend in Double Black; in this one, he’s relegated to the role of platonic buddy and seems to have no sex drive himself. Despite this odd romantic vacuum, the novel is never boring: it’s like an exhilarating downhill spin on the slopes, not over till it’s over, and when it is over, the reader wants more.
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