Francine Mathews: Death on a Winter Stroll

Great Christmas Read

Confession: this is the first book I’ve read in Mathews’ Merry Folger series, and I very much regret not being up to date (something I plan to rectify). What a great read – it reminded me of Jane Haddam’s books, without some of the sardonic edge that Haddam brought to her work.  Set on Nantucket, the setting is spectacular, and it’s obviously born of a personal love and knowledge of the area.  She describes the social strata of a resort perfectly – the workers who serve the very wealthy who frequent Nantucket exist in a different social sphere.  Merry, a native, is a “townie” who grew up on Nantucket and has long family roots on the island. They are there when the dust of the tourist season clears, and the gap between townie and summer visitor is often vast.

The book opens as Nantucket is about to celebrate the “Winter Stroll,” a Christmas event that brings thousands of visitors.  The island is crowded with out of towners including the Secretary of State as well as a television crew filming a new prestige streaming show; the actors and the crew are staying at the enormous home of a software billionaire.  The Secretary of State has arrived with her husband and stepson, a recovering addict named Ansel.  The film crew includes two very well known stars; the male star brings his somewhat troubled daughter, Winter.   Both Winter and Ansel are very carefully monitored by their families, but they still find ways to escape their watchers, and they meet for the first time in a coffee shop in town.

I will say that readers should exert some patience through the first couple chapters, as Mathews takes some time assembling her array of characters and there are many of them. I promise you that sticking with the story will be amply rewarded.  Winter and Ansel turn out to be the main focus.  They are both fumbling their way back to health (Winter suffers from bulimia) and they find a fundamental mutual understanding. Despite their youth, they are full, rich, fully realized characters.

Two deaths occur, one obvious and one not at all obvious, and the police, led by Merry, must figure out the link between the two seemingly unconnected deaths. The characters and the setting deepen the story.  Nantucket is very much front and center, and there’s another major character who is squatting in an abandoned house and works as a photographer.  The descriptions of the native birds – and the way the woman feeds them (you must read it!) – make the book more interesting, more specific and more compelling.

Mathews captures the feel of a busy event, the exhaustion of the police chief who has seen the President off the island only to immediately welcome famous Hollywood stars and the Secretary of State, and who must deal with their many problems including deaths that are connected to each group.  This is a wonderful read in the best sense of the word.  The pages flowed through my fingers almost faster than I could turn them, so captivated was I by Mathews’ depiction of Nantucket, the characters, and the twisty mystery at the center of the book.  This book really sparkles.