"Canaan's Gate" by Kathryn R. Wall: Book Review


"Canaan's Gate" by Kathryn R. Wall
Minotaur, 322 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James

Early-fortiesish widow-turned-newlywed Bay Tanner (technically, it's Bay Tanner Tanner), nee Lydia Baynard Simpson, has experienced three life-altering events during the past few months (in the course of the action of Wall's previous Bay Tanner novel, "Covenant Hall").

Her beloved father-- judge/lawyer and eminently wise adviser-- has died following a steady decline that left him confined to a wheelchair in the antiques-laden halls of Presqu'isle, a South Carolina Lowcountry manse that "came through" (to employ a Southernism) the family of Bay's emotionally distant, uber-socially-correct mother.

Second, Bay has discovered that she has a half-sister (her father's daughter) who has been living a sort of "Boo Radley" existence in a falling-down plantation house on an overgrown Lowcountry road way off the beaten track.

Third, Bay has married her brother-in-law, Redmond "Red" Tanner. As aforestated, she's a widow (with no children). He's a divorced father of two. So Bay has transitioned from Aunt Bay to Stepmother Bay.

Instead of lounging on her ocean-view deck in Hilton Head, S.C., sipping her preferred beverage, sweet iced tea, and trying to wrap her mind around all the changes recently wrought in her life, Bay, a former accountant, is zipping along at her P.I. agency, which is finally turning a profit, thanks to all the background-check cases it's running. largely by means of Bay's partner's, Erik Whiteside's, computer expertise (and, let's face it, his hacking and cracking).

In the Major Mistake Department: Red, onetime sergeant with the Beaufort County sheriff's office, has left his job and has gone to work for the agency.

Bay is also attempting to adjust to the newfound loneliness of Lavinia Smalls, formidable housekeeper at Presqu'isle and longtime caregiver/companion to the late judge. Lavinia also functioned as Bay's de facto mother, serving as an emotional refuge and upbringer when Bay's own mother was either unable or unwilling to do so.

As for the case involving Canaan's Gate (a Hilton Head manse): Part of it is presented by a mousey young bank employee with loads of personal issues who strongly suspects (yet has no concrete proof of; hence, her appeal to the agency) financial malfeasance involving one of the bank's tellers and the caregiver for a wealthy resident at Canaan's Gate.

While working this case, Bay is introduced to a relative of the wealthy man who is allegedly being scammed, someone who also wants to enlist her services, because he doesn't trust the elderly man's caregiver.

With two overlapping cases, things are bound to get messy.

Author Kathryn Wall writes in the realistic, sand-in-your-sandwich style of hardboiled detective authors of yore. It's no surprise, then, that Bay favors such reading material and is even found watching "Mildred Pierce," based on a novel by the master of noir irony and gritty sarcasm, James M. Cain.

In Bay Tanner, Wall has created a character who, over the past few fictional years, has had to reorder her life, which resulted largely from wealth and privilege, around storms of family upheaval and personal strife, including the loss of her first husband, Rob Tanner, who was killed as a result of his investigation of a widespread drug-dealing ring.

By all accounts, Bay should be a happily married (to Rob Tanner), successful CPA. Now, she's an uncertainly married, successful private investigator carrying the responsibilities of an aging mother figure and a childlike adult sister. Wall has handled the evolution of Bay's character with aplomb over ten volumes, rendering her one of the most interesting protagonists in mystery-series fiction.

* * *