Novel's sleuth tracks murder clues along Magothy River

June 25, 1995|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

If you felt a proprietary surge of excitement as Jack Ryan rounded Greenbury Point in hot pursuit of a boatload of Irish assassins in Tom Clancy's "Patriot Games," chances are you'll also get a big kick out of Barbara Lee's new mystery, "Death In Still Waters."

Ms. Lee's first novel, published by St. Martin's Press, follows advertising executive-turned-super-sleuth Eve Elliot as she unravels two decades worth of deceit, passion and murder along Anne Arundel's Magothy River.

Mountain Road, Ritchie Highway, downtown Annapolis and the Magothy itself are just some of the county backdrops used in this whodunit, the winner of the 1994 "Best First Malice Domestic Mystery Contest," sponsored by the publisher for fledgling writers.

Referring to herself as a "disenchanted New Yorker," Barbara Lee left the Big Apple for Annapolis 11 years ago to pursue a literary career.

Born in Cooperstown, N.Y., she worked in New York's publishing world -- as one of the editors of the Nancy Drew series -- before heading south to write articles for Maryland magazine and establish herself as a successful corporate writer for the local real estate industry.

She lives in Columbia with her husband, Robert Suggs, whom local concertgoers will remember fondly as the second trumpet in the popular Annapolis Brass Quintet that disbanded two years ago after two decades of distinguished music-making.

As with all interesting writers, Barbara Lee's personal experiences have worked their way into her story line, from her enchantment with Anne Arundel County's many waterfront communities to her intimate knowledge of the real estate industry.

In fact, her heroine's aunt is a Pasadena Realtor, and the book's funnier moments have Eve desperately trying to master the arcane language from her real estate licensing course, even as she's scouring Pasadena, Annapolis and New York City for clues to a 25-year-old murder.

As for the mystery itself, it's a good one.

Shortly after her arrival in Maryland, Eve discovers the corpse of old Ray Tilghman, who appears to have drowned in the same small Magothy cove where the body of a beautiful local actress had washed up 25 years earlier.

In fact, it was Ray who had found her corpse.

Coincidence? Was the old man murdered? Who would want him dead? And what, if anything, does his death have to do with the murder of Penny Hart, the Pasadena heartthrob who had left town two decades earlier for Broadway's bright lights and was killed during a visit home?

Yes, Eve definitely has her work cut out for her as she attempts to unravel the puzzle despite trails that have gone cold, dead animals placed on her doorstep, and a clique of hard-working, hard-drinking Magothy residents who clam up the minute this stranger starts asking questions.

What is most memorable about the book, however, is the way the main character is drawn. Like Kinsey Millhone in Sue Grafton's wonderful detective series and Robert Parker's indomitable Boston sleuth, Spenser, Eve would be interesting even if she weren't solving mysteries. Eve is funny and self-deprecating. Her agonizing reappraisal of her doomed marriage and her professional priorities are all too real. She's not just fitting together the pieces of a puzzle; she's working out the rest her life.

Barbara Lee is already at work on her second novel. With any luck, there will be enough murder and mayhem on the Magothy to keep Eve Elliot busy for years.

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