How shall I put this? I wanted to like this book—and to some extent I did—but ultimately I found it disappointing.
Well-Offed in Vermont begins with Stella and Nick Buckley moving from NYC to Vermont. They’re just arriving at their new home, an 1890 farmhouse in need of a few home repairs, including the installation of a new well pump. Before they can acclimate to the new homestead, a neighbor drops by and a dead body is found in the well.
Before blood in the water pipes lead to the gruesome discovery, however, the first chapter reveals several details about Stella and Nick. Almost too many details all at once…
The pair were married about five years ago. Stella, her specialty in medieval tapestries, worked in a museum while Nick held a bleak government desk job. They had “agreed that if, after five years, [Stella] hadn’t been promoted to curator, we’d move somewhere that would allow [Nick] to do fieldwork.” Nick had gotten a forestry degree, but put his career on hold while Stella worked in a museum. Nick would be starting his forestry job on “the following Monday” while Stella had lost out on a textiles curator position at the Shelbourne Museum. There’s also a fair bit of detail about Stella’s divorced parents.
There’s very little to learn about the couple after this. Details seem to be lacking about their lives, aside from a mention of Stella’s embroidering at a later point; a hobby that could have been expanded upon. Most of what we get from Stella and Nick subsequently is breezy banter, dialogue that doesn’t always seem to suit their character.
It doesn’t help that Chapter Two largely focuses on the background of Windsor County Sheriff Charlie Mills—and the local woman he loves, Alma Johnson. The exposition given here reveals far too much about these two characters too soon. And its the type of background information that almost makes Mills and Alma appear like lead characters to rival Stella and Nick.
In Chapter Three, Sheriff Mills takes statements from Stella and Nick. And he informs them that they’ll have to find temporary digs—provided by Alma. “Even if an initial search of your house comes up clean, I’m not gonna let you folks go rushing back there. Not ’til I know who did this, the sheriff tells them. So Stella and Nick resolve to investigate the case themselves. As Stella says, “I just can’t help but think that by making sense out of this whole Allen Weston thing, everything else will fall into place.”
Mills and Alma share a lot of details about the victim, Allen Weston. They’re awfully chatty about him, his background as a New Jersey transplant, and the reasons why someone might have killed him. In fact, most of the characters Stella and Nick question seem more than willing—unbelievably so—to talk about the murder and their stakes in it. However, it’s these secondary characters who grab interest. The unusually UN-recitent Vermonters come across with the right amount of quirkiness. Though most only appear in a chapter or two, they shine briefly during their time in the spotlight.
Another winner here is the setting. Thumbnail sketches of the area begin several chapters and are scattered throughout the text, and these should give readers a solid sense of place. I particularly liked this example:
“The Windsor Bar and Grill was housed in a circa 1700 tavern set back from the main road just on the edge of town. Its generic white clapboard exterior, faded carved wooden sign, and unpaved parking lot presented a forbidding facade to passing tourists, but the locals knew that inside they would be met with cozy stone fireplaces, coffered ceiling, and some of the best comfort food in town.”
Inside “the roaring fire, hanging lamps and a few neon beer signs cast a cozy glow over the dining room full of working-class couples and families. At the bar, about a half-dozen men in flannel shirts and hunting garb quietly drank their beer and exchanged stories of their latest kill.”
It’s quick passages like these that add needed layers to a story.
Well-Offed in Vermont is a quick read, something light and cozy for leisure reading. Your mileage may vary on whether you can get passed the character flaws that stretch the boundaries of plausibility. The sheriff is too laid-back to allow Stella and Nick to so blithely snoop around and even question him as a suspect! Even though he had a reasonable motive. In fact, motives are well-established for many characters.
It’s almost strange that, upon reflecting on the text, I think the story might have been better if it had been focused on Sheriff Mills and Alma solving the case in their town. Their affection for each other, particularly on his side, is apparent even to Stella and Nick, complete strangers. Conflict and stakes would have been raised because Mills and Alma feared the other, having a motive, might have done the deed.
I totally understand the set up here though. Bringing outsiders to a new place and involving them in solving a murder is a tried-and-true plot setup. Especially for a planned mystery series, but I’m not sure Stella and Nick were developed enough to carry the story. Perhaps this is why this novel, published in 2011, is as yet the only entry in the Pret’ Near Perfect Mystery series? And yet I find myself curiously wondering how these characters might have been developed further…