Murder on Madeline Island: An Emily Swift Travel Mystery. Lorrie Holmgren. Cozy Cat Press, November 18, 2016, Trade Paperback, 274 pages.
Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.
When Emily Swift heads to Madeline Island for a romantic getaway with her boyfriend, Chet, she instead finds herself in the middle of Chet’s annual family vacation, a family feud over the drafting of a new will, and a murder investigation. Navigating the awkward social situation and the physical dangers of the island would be difficult enough, but circumstantial evidence also pinpoints Emily as the prime suspect. Can she solve the mystery, clear her name, and convince Chet’s entire family that she and Chet are not, in fact, engaged? Murder on Madeline Island by Lorrie Holmgren is a fun, layered mystery with a likable and engaging protagonist.
The mystery begins when Chet’s grandmother, known as Gram, holds a family meeting, where she announces that she is rewriting her will to exclude everyone unless they can track down her long-lost brother. The family, having never known about this brother, dismisses the whole thing as something Gram fictionalized to stir up drama. Eventually Gram asks Emily, a reporter, to help with the search. She is unable to turn the request down, and this part of the mystery is easily the most engaging. Emily is most sleuth-y when she is looking through records and talking to residents of the island, trying to track down a nameless person from several decades ago. This chunk of the mystery is also when the side-plot—Emily struggling with her feelings for Chet—shines the strongest. Holmgren keeps the love triangle from becoming too cliché by making the two men Emily must choose between (Chet Hamilton and Jack Flynn, a mechanic who lives on the island) legitimately interesting characters, and especially by making Chet ever-so-slightly not perfect. I found myself empathizing with Emily, a credit to Holmgren’s writing talent.
The other Hamiltons do not shine as strongly as Chet does. Although Holmgren introduces and describes all of them, they can be difficult to differentiate since they are all intensely argumentative, on edge, and at times closer to caricatures than to real characters. And although they all have the same motive for the string of murders on the island—changing Gram’s will back so that the Hamiltons inherit without needing to track down the brother or share the inheritance with that branch of the family—the amount of secrets, talents, and additional hidden motives isn’t evenly distributed among them, making the guessing game at the end anti-climactic. The investigation also slows down after the results of Emily’s attempt to track down the family emerge, and the energy in the last chunk of the book feels lower than it should be for a mystery that is otherwise engaging, with several layers, connected incidences, and legitimate stakes.
Murder on Madeline Island is a great read that is perfect for vacation—not least because Emily Swift herself is a travel writer. This is the first in a series of mysteries starring Emily Swift, and I think Holmgren and this series have a bright future.