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By Francine Mathews

Bantam Doubleday Dell
$23.95, 336 pp (July 1998)

Reviewed by Tom Kreitzberg (9/98)

The fourth time is not the charm for Detective Meredith Folger of the Nantucket police, whose personal troubles all but overshadow her investigation into the drowning of a young scalloper named Jay Santorski in Francine Mathew's latest novel in this series, DEATH IN A COLD HARD LIGHT.

Still doubting herself after her catastrophic failure (as she sees it) detailed in DEATH IN A MOOD INDIGO, Merry is called back from vacation with her fiance's family by her father, the Nantucket police chief, to look into Santorski's death. Peter Mason, her fiance, sees her willingness to go as a sign that she wants out of their engagement. When she gets home, she finds her father evasive and unforthcoming on the reason he insisted she be the one to handle what appears to be a routine case; and the continued absence of Matt Bailey, another Nantucket detective, begins to suggest something more than an AWOL drinking binge.

The evidence suggests that Santorski rode his bicycle off into the Easy Street Basin, although there are abrasions on the body's wrists and ankles that could have come from a rope. Needle marks on his arm may mean that Santorski was also shooting heroin, but neither his mother nor Merry's assistant Howie Seitz, who knew the victim socially, believe he was a user.

The investigation takes Merry into the very different worlds of heroin addiction -- a grim reality, even on Nantucket -- and marine biology, which Santorski studied at Harvard. The novel, though, is not really about scallops or drugs, but about Merry Folger, and her struggles to redeem her relationships with her father, her fiance, and herself.

As readers of the series already know, Mathews is masterful at evoking the atmosphere and environment of Nantucket Island. This novel is set in December, when the Christmas lights of the commercial district glow in the cold hard light of early winter. Reading the book is a gray and shivering experience; the weather is a continuing character, seemingly as interested as Merry Folger in keeping Nantucket at a distance from the mainland and its troubles.

DEATH IN A COLD HARD LIGHT rewards the readers of this series by moving Merry Folger forward along several dramatic fronts, both personal and professional, while at the same time offering a compelling mystery laced with suspense and menace.

The Meredith Folger series, in order of publication, is DEATH IN THE OFF-SEASON, DEATH IN ROUGH WATER, DEATH IN A MOOD INDIGO, and DEATH IN A COLD HARD LIGHT.

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