COMBING THE DORCH Local author Josh Pahigian digs mystery in the sands.
If these chilly winter days have you dreaming of sunbathing on the beach, a new mystery novel by Maine author Josh Pahigian could be just the thing to turn up the heat.
Set in Old Orchard Beach over the course of a summer, Strangers on the Beach is Pahigian's first work of fiction; the part-time University of New England writing professor has previously written several books about baseball. It's an impressive debut. This suspenseful thriller, imbued with local flavor (settings include Old Orchard Beach landmarks such as The Brunswick and Beach Bagels), is a page-turner with short, snappy chapters that often end in cliffhangers. It would make a great beach read, come to think of it.
Pahigian introduces the reader to a diverse and well-drawn cast of characters, including wealthy foreign adventurer Ferdinand Sevigny, whose arrival in town sets off a deadly chain of events; his beautiful younger mistress, Marisol, who has hidden motivations of her own; Billy, the teenaged son of a local alcoholic who simply wants to escape his bleak life; and Sally, a mentally challenged older woman who sees much but says little. All their lives, and more, become intertwined on an early-summer evening before the influx of tourists arrives.
Skepticism of outsiders — those who are from away as well as those who live outside of accepted boundaries —is a theme explored throughout the book. Of course, the central plot relies on the concept of foreign invaders, a/k/a strangers, disrupting a sleepy summer town set in its routines. Additionally, there are several places where Pahigian (who currently lives in Buxton but formerly lived and worked in OOB) makes sharp observations about tensions between locals and tourists, and this undertone of mistrust courses through the novel.
It's Sevigny who is the catalyst for the action — his boat and belongings that wash ashore, prompting interest from local law enforcement and international paparazzi, his girlfriend who shows up all but naked on Pine Point Beach, his nephew who attempts to involve young Billy in a murderous scheme. Appropriately, the reader learns Sevigny's true story in bits and pieces, much as one would by asking around at coffee shops and bars. Painted as larger-than-life at the start, and gradually becoming more sympathetic, Sevigny is an intriguing protagonist in a classic stranger-comes-to-town tale.
Despite a gripping plot and smooth writing, there are several sections that would have benefitted from a bit more showing, and little less telling. Particularly, Pahigian has a tendency to overexplain his characters' emotional reasoning. Consider this passage:
"Marisol did not identify her lover by name, but she told the girls she'd been swept off her feet and taken away," Pahigian writes. "She told them he'd been twice her age, and that he'd taken her all over the world. But in time she'd grown lonely and resentful. He'd told her where to go, and how to act, and she'd never had any real say in anything. She'd begun to feel like a kept woman, like she was just there for his pleasure."