Muesch (Rising Above the Wave, 2011) sets sail with a fast-paced mystery about a former leper colony.
Planning to film a documentary about an abandoned leper colony (which shares the name of the book), Elias “Ely” James leaves New York for an island off the coast of Trinidad. Once there, he hires a young pierced and tattooed female skipper for two weeks. Rachel expresses a similar interest in Chacachacare, saying that she’s taking photographs for a coffee-table book about the colony. Both soon reveal their true reasons for wanting to explore an island overrun by vegetation, graffiti and deeply guarded secrets. Ely wants to learn what happened to two lepers: his first love as a teenager and his mother. Rachel, raised by nuns at a nearby convent, seeks information about the parents she never knew. As the pair dig deeper into the past, they unravel the existence of a secret society, the mysterious actions of the convent’s nuns and a ghostly figure in white. The unveiling of long-buried secrets comes at a steep price, with several deaths and escalating danger for Ely, Rachel and their friends. Although the novel begins unsteadily with some stilted dialogue and unwieldy chunks of back story, it soon finds its sea legs, transitioning to a well-paced tale with every deciphered clue leading to another unanswered question. The abandoned leper colony and the convent offer a suitably spooky backdrop described with the right amount of detail. The lengthy flashbacks to Ely’s childhood, while slowing the novel’s pace, provide a heartrending glimpse of the emotional life of the lepers in the colony’s heyday. Rachel and Ely’s interactions appear most believable when they are actively sleuthing, which fortunately comprises the bulk of the book. The resolution of the mystery is the best kind, being a surprising and logical turn of events. The novel’s ending itself feels a bit pat with a return of the awkwardness from the early pages.
A solid mystery in an unusual locale offers plenty of twists to keep the pages turning.