Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Journalist Catherine "Cat" Marsala is torn when Hal Briskman, editor of Chicago Today, approaches her about doing a story for the publication. As a freelancer and, the reader gathers, as someone who prides herself on being professional, she welcomes a paying assignment. As a non-swimmer who nearly drowned in childhood, the assignment worries her.
The assignment consists of boarding the yacht of a wealthy businessman and his wife on Fourth of July weekend and sailing around Lake Michigan with them and a group of their wealthy friends. "Get a lot on how you sail a boat," Hal tells her. "How the very rich live. Are they really different from other people? Do they have class? What is class? What do they eat? Do they wear diamonds at the wheel? Brush their teeth in champagne?"
If Cat didn't accept the assignment, there would be neither a book nor this review. (Saw that coming, didn't you?)
Her hosts, the owners of the yacht Easy Girl, are Will Honeywell, president of the manufacturing company Honeywell Furniture, and his wife Belinda. Their guests include their son Bill and his friend Mary Shaughnessy, a second-year student at Yale Law School; Dr. Daniel Silverman, sports medicine specialist; Belinda's brother Dr. Greg Mandel, a well-known Chicago surgeon, and his wife Twinkie, who owns a successful jewelry boutique; Takuro Tsunami, an engineer; Bret Falcon, a young Broadway star who hopes to make it in films, too; and Chuck Kroop, another furniture manufacturer who, along with the Honeywells, financed Bret's successful Broadway musical Off and On. Also aboard is a young man named Emery Langmar, who is the yacht's sole crewman, and who waits on the guests as often as he deals with nautical matters.
Cat's fears that she might be regarded as an unwanted outsider are quickly disposed of; the Honeywells and most of their guests treat her cordially. The Honeywells and some of the others teach her the fine points of sailing, and she takes to it enthusiastically. But, as a reader might expect, tensions develop among the guests as their voyage goes on. Twinkie Mandel, for instance, is quite flirtatious, which doesn't sit well with her husband. Chuck Kroop, in particular, is coarse, overbearing, and fond of inappropriately touching the women aboard--especially Twinkie.
Greg eventually confronts Chuck, and a violent fight erupts. Chuck turns murderous, and is only subdued when Daniel Silverman forcibly administers a shot of Valium. He's then carried to the master stateroom and locked in. The Easy Girl encounters a dangerous night of stormy weather during which nobody gets any sleep save for the narcotized Chuck. Those who needn't be on deck congregate below, most in the area of the galley. This gives them a good view of the door to the master stateroom.
So when Chuck is discovered with his throat cut, it seems at first reasonable to assume he committed suicide. The nature of his death and the nature of his wounds suggest otherwise. Suicides don‘t usually cut their own throats--even when they're not loopy from a shot of Valium. They find quicker and less painful methods of killing themselves. But how could it be murder when nobody saw anyone enter or leave the stateroom? The impossible aspect of the situation makes it all the more chilling to Cat, not least because the yacht is becalmed after the storm and its motor will not start because of water in the fuel line. Its communications equipment has been sabotaged. She and the others are thus trapped on a boat with an unknown murderer.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, impossible crime stories--which category subsumes locked-room puzzles--are my favorite types of mysteries, whether sedate or hardboiled. I'm a sucker for them, though unfortunately some of them suck. Hard Tack is not one of those. I found it quite entertaining, even if the locked-room murder method, when finally revealed, strained credulity as many such methods are wont to do. Cat Marsala's first-person narration is lively, leavened with humor that's sometimes sassy but seldom snarky, and maintains a good pace. (I knew I liked her when, in the first chapter, she said she had packed two novels to take along on the trip: John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins and The Judas Window.) In keeping with the tradition of many Golden Age mysteries, Barbara D'Amato provides the reader with a sketch of the Easy Girl and its below-deck layout.
The caveats? The murder doesn't occur until a little more than halfway through, the lead-up time being devoted to character interaction and development, and a lot of discussions about the fine points of sailing and what kinds of conditions sailors encounter and how they contend with them. (D'Amato provides a glossary of nautical terms at the back of the book.) Some readers may grow impatient, especially if they're landlubbers. I'm one of those, but I was neither impatient nor bored. Besides which, some of the information is crucial to the murder's solution.
All things considered, Hard Tack is a pretty good mystery.
Barry Ergang (c) 2010