Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
Cutting Loose in Paradise (Pineapple Press, 2015) by Mary Jane Ryals is a charming, quirky Florida environmental mystery full of local color, intriguing and unique characters, poetry-quality language, lushly evoked landscapes, a twisty-turny plot, and just the right touch of wry humor. Though Ryals is the author of several books of poetry and general fiction, this is her first mystery, and she dives into the genre with bold grace and style.
The novel is set in St. Annes Island, a fictional Gulf of Mexico community in northern Florida (the so-called Big Bend region) that seems to be a cross between Cedar Key and St. George Island. St. Annes Island, described by one teenage character as “terminally quaint,” is physically close enough to Tallahassee that a key law enforcement character can travel to and fro in a hurry, but the community is nothing like that capital city. Rather, this is a land of fishermen and rural or small-town folks in the Forgotten Coast who’ve been making their living off the Gulf of Mexico for generations. These locals (defined as “anyone who’s endured the place for longer than the rest of us can remember”) have deep roots in their island and sometimes clash with newcomers and developers. Ryals knowingly writes: “Locals fought to keep this way of life alive, or fought to stay alive in this place. They’d watched as wealthier folks had come with big boats and pushed the real estate market to the levels unreachable to locals and their children.” Yet, at the same time, with the difficult nature of a fishing-based economy, the locals needed the wealth of the outsiders.
Despite differences, newcomers and locals have learned to co-exist. Ryals writes: “The locals gave the outsiders something, too. A way of being. Locals knew how to party, how to relax urban rules. High school boys danced with old ladies, people actually stomped and danced loose-hipped on the floor. The outsiders appreciated this live-and-let-live on the island. This meant the two groups generally intermingled with no thought of consequence. Live for today.”
In Cutting Loose, as in the best Florida mysteries, it’s the characters who dominate the story. The protagonist in Cutting Loose is LaRue Panther, a part-Seminole single Mom who discovered her master’s degree in English wasn’t going to support her and her two children, so she went to beauty school and now runs a hair salon. As LaRue muses, “I set up shop in the town where my dad and his mother lived, where my blood was salted.” Like all of the small businesses on the island, LaRue’s shop struggles in a floundering economy.
At the beginning of the story, LaRue reluctantly agrees to fix the hair of a recently deceased woman – not just any dead woman but her friend and an aunt-by-proxy to her two kids. In the funeral home, LaRue discovers that this dead woman, who supposedly committed suicide by shooting herself in the chest, actually had her throat cut.
LaRue suspects the local law enforcement can’t be trusted—after all, the local investigating cop had to have noticed that cut throat and hid the truth. So LaRue and two of her girlfriends set out to find out what the heck is going on. Thus begins LaRue’s adventures in amateur sleuthing, but soon she is a suspect after one of the island’s most successful real-estate developers is poisoned by a cup of coffee LaRue just handed to him. He doesn’t die from the poison, but that only marginally takes the pressure off LaRue as her business drops away even more, given her status as the lead suspect. Enter the Florida Department of Law Enforcement officer, a handsome redhead named Jackson.
LaRue is helped and hindered in near equal doses by her strong-willed yet loving and certainly spirited grandmother, Grandma Happy, a full-blooded Seminole, who talks to the Little People in the trees, fixes healing teas, and knows there is something wrong with the water in the most pristine springs in the area – water that the locals drink.
As the plot is just heating up, someone asks LaRue if she wants a beer. She quips: “I stared at the hallway that led to Mac’s room. I’d just stolen onto a boat he owned. I’d supposedly poisoned him several days ago. I’d just found out he kept iffy books. Of course I wanted a beer.”
Twists and turns and adventures and greed and crime and close calls follow, all liberally dosed with wry humor and loads of gorgeous landscapes and eccentric people. Convoluted relationships of love, lust, betrayal and blood add another dimension to the story.
There is more going on in Cutting Loose, though, than a twisty plot and intriguing characters and a dazzling sense of place. Notwithstanding the development on the island that raises the locals’ cost of living, it’s the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, better known as the BP oil spill, which really threatens their way of life. When a BP oil rig exploded in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, oil gushed into the Gulf for 87 days, and this story, which dominated Florida and national news in the spring and summer of 2010, is accurately woven through the novel.
As Ryals writes, “We watched the news. A fisherman was trolling the waters of Barataria Bay in his johnboat, flashing on globs of oil on dying grass in Louisiana. The fisherman was saying, ‘It’s eerie, quiet. It’s all gonna die. You don’t hear the birds. You don’t hear the shrimp pop in the water, that li’l splash. …This is my way of life. This – it’s pulling everything outta my heart.’”
The BP oil spill works like a motif of environmental degradation, and the impact and horror of the spill are never soft-peddled. Ryals clearly feels passionately about this environmental disaster. Yet she does not preach and is not shrill in her writing. The oil spill references do not dominate or erode the impact and mystery of the story. Rather, the BP spill enhances the suspense and fuels the plot and adds layers of angst and bravery to the characters.
What makes Cutting Loose a standout in an increasingly crowded sub-genre—the zany Florida environmental thriller—is the deft and loving way Ryals writes:
Bright green eelgrass under the spring-fed river swayed as if in slow motion. A few bream swam past. Above water, the orange-leafed cypress trees made islands in the middle of the river. The Spanish moss draping them looked like ladies’ stockings drying languid in the sun.
Ospreys and even eagles soared over the swamp grass, which looked like wheat, spotted with small clearings where water lay, reflecting the brilliant blue sky.
As this passage illustrates, Ryals gets the tone and language and pace—heck, the whole darn thing—just right in the descriptions of this island community and its peoples. As well, perhaps, she should, since she has lived near the northern Gulf coast of Florida most of her life and is the official Poet Laureate of the Big Bend of North Florida. She has absorbed the beat and heart of the area and, equally clear, has deep feelings for the region and its people. Ryals has a poet’s touch and an artist’s eye for telling detail and a light hand at lecturing; there is no doubt of her and the main character’s outrage at destruction of the natural beauty of their beloved region.
This is the first book in a proposed LaRue Pather mystery series. And Ryals’s creation, the gutsy, spunky, funny, brave and bold LaRue Panther, has the right traits to anchor a series. Readers will be ready for the next book. Write faster, Mary Jane.