Virginia Hartman’s debut The Marsh Queen (Gallery Books 2022) had the potential to be as stunning as its cover. A bird artist from the Smithsonian returns to the marshes of Florida to face the ghost of her father, the mental decline of her mother, and a mystery that has sullied the town for years; it had the potential to be as vibrant and beautiful as the landscape it takes place in, but it’s a sputtering disappointment.
When Loni’s brother tells her she has to come home because their mother isn’t well, she assures her boss she’ll only be gone for two weeks. “Home” isn’t a place she likes to be for very long because she’s haunted by memories of her father. Her father’s memory, some of the sweeter parts of the novel, makes him my favorite character. He drowned when she was a kid. Rumors said it was suicide, and that’s the albatross that has hung on Loni since. When her brother starts looking into her father’s death to see if they are owed more money as survivors since he died while on duty, Loni realizes things aren’t what they seemed. For one, the investigation says he died on duty. Loni knows that isn’t true, and she’s afraid her brother’s tinkering around will reveal the truth – that he killed himself. But maybe he didn’t. And maybe it wasn’t an accident.
Someone in town wants Loni to stop digging around and leave, and they’re not being quiet about it.
It’s a slow burn of a mystery with a kiss of a romance. None of the characters are likeable except for Loni’s father through her memories, which is much the same issue I had with a similar novel from 2010 Men with Dogs where another woman returns home to the South to chase the ghost of her father.
If you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced mystery set in Florida with likeable characters and smart writing, I’d recommend Carl Hiaasen’s middle grade novels – Chomp and Flush in particular. (Don’t let the fact they’re middle grade stand in your way – they are excellent reads.)
Back to The Marsh Queen – many draw comparisons to Where the Crawdads Sing, which I’ve refused to read for several reasons. As such, I can’t really speak to that comparison. I can say I wish the characters were more likable and that more was done with the birds and landscape – the Marsh should have been the loudest and most beautiful character in the novel.
Do I recommend it? Eh. It’s a book. It has words. A beginning. Middle. End.