The Artist Colony, by Joanna FitzPatrick

Library conferences rarely take me to beautiful places. The American Library Association, for example, has a reputation for booking places in the off-season to keep down costs. So I’ve frozen my face off in Chicago in January and melted into a puddle in Las Vegas in July. One conference, Internet Librarian, however, is always in Monterey, California, in October. The California coast is always visually stunning. Between sessions, I would always walk through parks and down piers. Every plant is strange and fascinating; the air always smells like the sea. It’s a pity the conference only lasts three days. I mention all this because Joanna FitzPatrick’s novel, The Artist Colony, is set in Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is very close to Monterey. As I read this book, I had memories of the unforgettable scenery to accompany the plot. I do love to read books set in places I’ve actually been. FitzPatrick liberally borrows from the history of Carmel-by-the-Sea and its artist colony to ground her mystery plot. If you’re not familiar with that history—or with the landscape of coastal California—you might want to read this book with an internet-enabled device nearby so that you can look things up.

Sarah Cunningham never wanted to go to Carmel-by-the-Sea. She has a life as an up-and-coming artist in post-World War I Paris. Unfortunately for Sarah, she has to make the journey because her sister, Ada, has suddenly died. We meet her on the train to Carmel…and we’re not the only ones. Sarah has the bad luck to share a compartment with a man who is clearly not used to women saying no to him. That unpleasant encounter gives way to something even worse. As soon as Sarah debarks, she spots a newspaper headline announcing that Ada died by suicide. In the fashion of many sisters in genre fiction, Sarah immediately starts to investigate what really happened to Ada. It doesn’t take her long to start uncovering secrets and lining up suspects, much to the annoyance of Carmel’s caricature of a marshal.

Carmel Bay, in an 1898 photocrom print
(Image via Wikicommons)

The marshal notwithstanding, Sarah has plenty of help from Ada’s friends and colleagues—many of whom have Wikipedia articles of their own. She gets advice and clues from poet Robinson Jeffers and writer Mary Austin. There are times when I thought FitzPatrick laid it on a bit thick with the name dropping, but I was entertained enough by the characters and the plot to forgive this and the occasionally clumsy dialogue. (Some of the characters, including the protagonist, are suspiciously woke for 1924.) I was actually a little disappointed that Ada Davenport and Sarah Cunningham weren’t real, as far as I can tell. Their fictional works are described with such verve that I wish I could look them up.

The Artist Colony is a diverting read. It’s not perfect, but there is enough originality to make it worth a quick read. Funny enough, this book is just my kind of beach read: an interesting mystery, worked by intriguing characters, in an exotic location. The book is a vacation, and is ideal for times when we can’t always safely take a trip to a California beach. Bon bookish voyage, readers!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for your in-depth review. I so appreciate the time it takes a reviewer to write a lengthy review and your photo of one of the novel’s locations was a lovely surprise.
    all my best,
    Joanna FitzPatrick

    Like

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