Hidden Beneath (A Maine Clambake Mystery)

Image of Hidden Beneath (A Maine Clambake Mystery)
Release Date: 
June 27, 2023
Kensington Cozies
Reviewed by: 

“Murder of course means dysfunction somewhere—but what a relief, for summer reading, that in Hidden Beneath the taint of malice swishes past, and courage can take over.”

Barbara Ross’ 11th Maine Clambake mystery poses the opposite of a “strangers on a train” situation: Everyone except amateur sleuth Julia Snowden seems to know each other, and although the action takes place in the limited terrain of Chipmunk Island, that wide Maine ocean scape offers plenty of fresh air and views. But there’s no view, unfortunately, into the thoughts of Julia’s mother Jacqueline, who brushes off questions with a pleasant smile and the word “Fine” while clearly not.

Since the daughter-mother pair is here for a memorial service, some strain seems natural. But for Julia, her mother’s long secrecy about her teen years on this island seems as unreal as their entry into house of the deceased, Ginny Merrill: stripped to bare white walls and emptied of most furnishings and all personal items. Julia struggles for perspective.

“I couldn’t remember having met Ginny Merrill once, even during my childhood. We were at the start of our short, brutally busy season at the Snowden Family Clambake, fully booked for lunch and dinner. Mom and I had to find substitutes to fill our clambake jobs . . . Now that I was on the island, I was growing more intrigued.”

The trusting connection between Julia and Jacqueline provides terra firma to an investigation that uncovers one secret after another about Ginny Merrill and her presumed death five years earlier. For mystery readers, the persistent whiffs of intrigue suggest murder—but Ross holds the cards of motive, means, and opportunity tightly, allowing a long and enjoyable summer exploration to unfold. Most significant is the intimacy of a long-term summer colony: When instructions from Ginny’s last documents suggest her house will now go on the open market, the women friends on the island are horrified.

Julia’s mother carries five years of her own distress over the death—for which there’s still no body, only a legal declaration. Just before it happened, Ginny had sent Jacqueline an email asking for a private conversation. Clambake business meant that Jacqueline delayed replying, then learned her old friend was missing, believed dead.

“What if . . .” Mom hesitated, miserable. “What if whatever she wanted to tell me about led to her death?”

Julia’s in a bind: She’ll have to deal with a former lover to find out more about the island’s occupants and doesn’t want to re-open her own losses. But it’s her mother asking. “It was the least I could do if it would help my mother lay her concerns to rest.”

One of the deep charms of this book lies in the healthy, caring connections of the Snowden family. Murder of course means dysfunction somewhere—but what a relief, for summer reading, that in Hidden Beneath the taint of malice swishes past, and courage can take over. There’s time for Julia to learn who around her can be trusted, and who’s using the old friendships as protective color.

Slow as a sunny beach day, Julia’s persistent digging finally opens up the reality of more than the five-years-ago missing person: Ginny’s is not the only unexplained death in Chipmunk Island’s history. Someone’s got to hold the final secret. Most disturbing, though, is Julia’s peril as she confronts the women who’ve collaborated to build their adult lives as a fence around the dangerous twists of their childhoods.

Ross’ polished and warm storytelling propels this mystery into a memorable novel of women’s friendship. A murder mystery often leaves a bad taste about the depths people can sink to. Hidden Beneath, on the other hand, suggests that with enough caring about the truth and family backing, it’s possible to confront terrible wrongs. There’s a cost, of course—but for Julia, there are also some very deep affirmations that move this enduring series forward once again.