François Simon, a restaurant critic for the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, has gained a reputation for lambasting some of France’s best-known eating establishments. There was an air of anticipation when ARTE, a European culture and public service television channel, hired Simon to offer a review of McDonald’s. When the moment of truth came, much to people’s surprise, Simon declared the food to be not all that bad. In fact, he saw nothing wrong with occasionally slumming it and treating himself to a Caramel McFlurry. My own decided preference in mystery novels is for those that have some sort of educational element: I want my mystery to inform me about a foreign culture, a profession with which I am not familiar, a historic incident or period. There are times, however, when I want nothing more than an entertaining story—in other words, to slum it with a Caramel McFlurry. It is in this spirit that I recommend Kathryn Wall’s Bay Tanner mystery series.
Bay Tanner, the heroine of the series, occupies two different worlds. She owns a home, and she runs a small, struggling detective agency on Hilton Head Island—a booming resort community, filled with luxury hotels, vacation condos, and retirement homes, found off the coast of South Carolina. By lineage, Tanner is part of the old South. She frequently visits her father, who lives nearby in a stately, antebellum home, located in what Carolinians call the “Lowcountry.” It is the Hilton Head connection that led me to accidentally discover the series. My wife and I were planning a vacation there, and I did an internet search to see if any mystery novels happened to be set in that location. The answer was yes, and I downloaded one of the Kathryn Wall novels for some casual reading.
To be honest, my expectations were low. I was anticipating nothing more than a piece of light fluff—a work that might be of some interest to locals and vacationers, and nothing more. What I found instead was solid writing, intriguing plots, and a set of characters that held my interest. Bay Tanner, who occasionally spices her observations with mild sarcasm, reminds me of Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s heroine in the immensely popular A is for Alibi mystery series, but with a Southern pedigree.
The novels are very much continuous, featuring a small galaxy of reoccurring characters. Tanner’s father, Judge Talbot Simpson, is a cantankerous old soul, made all the more crotchety because a set of strokes has left him confined to a wheelchair. Deep down, there is a loving relationship between the judge and his daughter, but given that they both have strong personalities, sparks tend to fly when the two are together. None of this stops Judge Simpson from assisting Tanner—using his close connections to a Southern old boy’s network of influential judges and lawyers.
Tanner’s mother is deceased, but has a strong off-stage presence. Unlike Tanner herself, her mother was enamored with rank, status, and alcohol. Tanner is of a very different temperament, and she often reflects upon how her own lack of commitment to proper decorum and the dying world of Southern aristocracy would have left her mother scandalized.
Lavinia Smalls is her parents’ longstanding, African-American servant and cook (specializing in Lowcountry cuisine, of course). When Tanner was young, Lavinia served as a surrogate mother, providing Tanner with the stability and moral guidance that her own biological mother did not. Now that Tanner’s mother has passed away, Lavinia serves as the Judge’s full time, live-in caretaker.
Dolores Santiago is Tanner’s own housekeeper. Dolores’ English is halting at best, but she still manages to serve as a second surrogate mother for Tanner. She is only employed part time, but she takes it upon herself to leave meals in the refrigerator for Tanner. That is fortunate, for otherwise Tanner’s diet would consist of reheated pizzas and Chinese takeout. A housekeeper Tanner is not.
Erik Whiteside is the detective agency’s part-time assistant. Erik has a more stable job as a computer and security expert at a big box store. The skill set that he brings to Tanner’s agency is his ability to seek information from data bases located online. When need be, he uses some not-so-legal skills for hacking, but who is to complain? Certainly not Tanner, although occasionally this does cause her some minor qualms of conscience.
Finally, Red Tanner is the brother of Tanner’s deceased husband. As a sergeant in the local sheriff’s department, his connections often give Tanner access to information that would otherwise be unavailable. Just as important, Red, a divorcée with two children, would like to take his brother’s place as Tanner’s husband. He has a rougher edge than Tanner’s former husband, however, and the relationship between the two, while sometimes tender and loving, is at any given moment just as likely to be stormy.
When I stumbled upon the series, the first two books (In For A Penny and And Not A Penny More) were not widely available. The first book was self-published, and the second was the property of a very small press. By the time Kathryn Wall wrote the third book (Perdition House), she had won a contract with St. Martin’s Press. Now the entire series is available, both in paper and electronic form. I tend to be manic compulsive about wanting to start any mystery series at the beginning, but in this case, I might suggest starting with book three, Perdition House. The first book suffers from some of the deficiencies that are often found in a self-published book. It is not as tightly edited as it might be, and there are a few minor continuity problems. In addition, one is told so often about how Bay Tanner reaches for a cigarette that one begins to worry about the health effects of second-hand smoke.
I do not want to leave the impression that the first two books are not good, but they are not as good as the sequels. If you start the series with book three, you always have the option of going back to the first two books and reading them as a prequel. There is no need to worry about being exposed to spoilers. The only thing that the later books reveal, quite often, is that Tanner’s husband was killed when a bomb exploded in a private plane that he was about to fly. That is not the culmination of one of the first two books, but something that is described in book one, chapter one.
In closing, let me confess that I have yet to read the entire Bay Tanner series. In fact, I am in the midst of reading one of the books right now. That leaves me in a rather anxious state, wanting to get back to my Caramel McFlurry. So wish me au revoir and bon appetite.
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