She's Not There
    by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)
    Henry Holt & Co.
    February, 2003
    317 pages

    Reviewed by Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 1994–96)

    MARY-ANN TIRONE SMITH’S sequel to the popular Love Her Madly proves to be another exciting page-turner.
         The compelling scenario is set on small Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, where Poppy Rice has reluctantly agreed to vacation with her occasional lover Joe. Their relaxation is abruptly interrupted when Poppy stumbles upon the first young victim of a terrible crime. Poppy calls her vacation short, changes out of her bikini and gets ready to solve her newest mystery.
         Subsequently the reader is introduced to an intriguing group of characters, which makes the setting resemble an isle of misfits. There’s the well-portrayed autistic Jake, the misogynist artist Esther, the once-good-cop-turned-alcoholic, Fitzy with his naïve rookie, the camp director/con man, and the typified sassy-yet-caring group of overweight teenage girls. Unsuspectingly, the girls have come to the recently opened “fat farm” camp to lose weight, but instead they are mentally, if not physically, abused by the camp director and seek solace in their secret stashes of sweets, each other’s company and the strength of their heroine, Poppy. The camp director is revealed to be a con artist who describes his military-style camp as one that includes: “Discipline that replaces sloth with self-esteem. Discipline that includes orders to be followed rather than benevolent advice. Tough love, as some would call the method. Since teenagers are impervious to advice, after all.”
         The author wastes no time in grabbing the reader’s attention, already by page five the first dead body is found. Poppy, a cynical and often brash workaholic, is now able to substantiate her self-proclaimed “irrational fear of vacation,” while manifesting a supportive compassion for the teenage girls who seem to have few others on their side. The alienated girls, most of them seemingly discarded to the island by their parents, muster little authentic concern on the part of the locals; they are not day-trippers, who are ridiculed but at least come with the welcomed tourist dollars. The locals are initially convinced the death of the girl must be a sex crime, a drug overdose, or both, and are relieved to discover the victim is not “one of our own.”
         Each subsequent gruesome murder is bizarrely identical. The girls are found naked; there is neither blood nor visible wound. The pathologist soon discovers another odd similarity between them — the girls’ eardrums have been ruptured. In search of method and motive, the plot becomes a “who-dunnit” through and through. Joe leaves the island suddenly and Poppy is left to solve the mystery with nearly every character seeming to be a possible suspect, even him. Through Poppy’s keen power of observation the story forges ahead and the race begins to identify the killer before the next girl is found, and it’s hard to turn the pages fast enough to keep up with Poppy.
         If on occasion bordering on cliché, it is nonetheless the dialogue that illuminates the stereotypes of “small town folk versus city slicker” and also manages to sound sadly realistic. The surplus of dialogue also contributes to the “quick read” aspect of the book, and sometimes lends itself to poignant social observations or cultural criticisms, as in the ironic but valid comment made by both Poppy and Joe at different times; “Can’t be overweight in America, can you?” And again when Poppy talks about her assistant, mirroring America’s contemporary child care crisis: “When Delby went looking for child care, she found out you could be a hooker with a sixth-grade education and a history of schizophrenia and still get a license to run a day-care center.”
         The theme of denial becomes a leitmotif also paralleling societies’ tendencies. Joe’s contribution to discovering the truth is shadowed by his refusal to taint the image of his idealized small town retreat. The reader is confronted with the characters’ general belief that it is OK for teenage girls to die from drugs but not from murder. Fitzy escapes into his bottle, the island doctor into his Demerol. Finally, in the concluding scene, some of the locals admit they had an idea who the murderer was, but ulterior motives kept them all from speaking out. It reminds the reader of that distressingly popular modern adage “denial is a beautiful thing.”
         The author’s third in the Poppy Rice mysteries is already in the works and it will be interesting to see what adventures await this daring FBI agent.

    Mishelle Shepard nurtured her childhood love of books by earning an MA in French Literature and becoming a language teacher and a writer. She has published dozens of articles, ghostwritten a book, and is completing her fist novel. She’s currently living in Girona, Spain.