When two widows join forces in their golden years to move to a house in the San Juan Islands and pursue their creative endeavors, they think they have retreated from the hurly-burly of the outside world.
Instead, they find themselves entangled in an escalating campaign of hate crimes — a rock is thrown through their window, their cat is poisoned and some obscene anti-lesbian graffiti is spray-painted on their garage door.
This is the set-up for “The Camera’s Eye,” the latest novel by Anacortes, Washington, author Judith Kirscht.
The protagonists are Veronica Lorimer and Charlotte McAllister, two “gray-haired white ladies who looked like English teachers.”
Veronica is a professional photographer, hence the book’s title. As these incidents begin to mount, she uses her camera to document the transgressions.
Her housemate and good friend, Charlotte, is a retired prosecuting attorney.
Both women have lived full lives that have seen their share of tragedy, heartbreak and conflict, so both of them are prompted to contemplate whether the motivation for these attacks stems from something that happened in their past — Veronica’s ugly divorce and estrangement from her grown children, or the perceived liberal slant of her photographic essays, for example, or Charlotte’s work in the criminal justice system.
When the ladies report these incidents to local law enforcement, the response they get is disappointingly complacent. There’s even the insinuation that their lifestyle is to blame.
Dissatisfied, the two decide to undertake an investigation of their own and they become, in Charlotte’s words, “a pair of old biddies playing detective.”
Their investigations lead them to consider a teenage fugitive (loosely modeled on Colton Harris Moore, the “Barefoot Bandit” who grabbed headlines in the early 2000s), students at a local high school and a popular fundamentalist church on the island.
Their snooping also brings them into disconcerting encounters with Veronica’s son and daughter.
“The Camera’s Eye” doesn’t have the feel of a conventional mystery. Despite the early incidents of vandalism, the story seems to unspool languidly, heavy on reflective dialogue and everyday details — appropriate for these characters, but not the typical grist of the mystery genre. And while these ladies do their shopping, eat out at local restaurants and do a fair share of dog-walking through the local woods and fields in search of clues, the tenor of this story is not that of a “cozy.”
Kirscht adeptly captures the atmospherics of life on an island in the Pacific Northwest. But this no island paradise.
An increasingly dysfunctional tone seeps into the pages and the stakes continue to rise. The final third of the book erupts in physical violence — and a twist of events seems to implicate the victims as perpetrators of the wrongdoing.
Kirscht has built the spine of this story on humanistic principles. Throughout “The Camera’s Eye,” her characters stubbornly adhere to their values as they decide how to act and react. This meditative approach doesn’t always enhance the pacing of the plot, but ultimately it does knit together a satisfying tale.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com.