Book review: ‘Board Stiff’

Sun SentinelMay 4, 2013 

"Board Stiff" by Elaine Viets.

  • Fiction Board Stiff Elaine Viets

    Obsidian, 288 pages

With few exceptions, characters in mysteries change and grow throughout the series. Not only does that reflect real life – are any of us the same person we were last year? – but it also allows authors to stretch their storytelling skills.

Elaine Viets’ “Dead-End Jobs” series started with her heroine taking low-paying, off-the-grid jobs following a horrific divorce. Viets’ lively plots and broad humor complemented these highly entertaining novels while also showing how low-paid employees often are taken for granted.

But the gradual sea-change in Viets’ series has created an even more satisfying story line. The change is in Helen’s life.

Now happily married and a full partner with her husband, Phil Sagemont, in their detective agency Coronado Investigations, Helen is back to using her intelligence instead of trying to survive and hide. Helen still has to take those dead-end jobs, but now she’s gathering clues and evidence; and the people she meets on those jobs are more than willing to help her. Business is thriving thanks to some high-profile cases they’ve recently solved.

In her 12th outing with Helen Hawthorne, Viets delivers a unique look at South Florida’s tourism industry – not from the viewpoint of the big hotels or upscale restaurants. Instead, “Board Stiff” takes us to the small beach-front companies that are the lifeblood of tourism.

Helen and Phil are hired by the owner of Sunny Jim’s Safety First Parasailing and Stand-Up Paddleboarding on shores of the fictional Riggs Beach. Sunny Jim believes he is being vandalized by a restaurateur who wants Jim’s prime spot for a lucrative parking lot. Sunny Jim believes that the murder of a tourist on one of his boards is part of the plan to get rid of him.

Helen and Phil find spending the day at the beach, prowling the beach bars or having breakfast at a waterfront cafe isn’t a bad way to gather clues for their investigation. But an incident from Helen’s past threatens not only her safety but also her marriage.

Viets, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, showcases South Florida and specific spots such as the Downtowner, Lester’s Diner and Urban Brew Cafe. Although Riggs Beach is fictional, located south of Fort Lauderdale, Viets perfectly captures the attitude and flavor of a Florida beach, from the tackier-than-ever T-shirt shops to the causal cafes.

Viets brings the same sense of place to the scenes of St. Louis, where the author grew up, when the case takes Helen and Phil there.

For Floridians, “Board Stiff” is a look at home. For those who live elsewhere, “Board Stiff” is a vicarious Florida vacation.

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