Murder in the Maple Woods is a debut novel by Claire Ackroyd, a landscape designer and independent organic inspector from central Maine.
Where are the book awards!? I haven’t enjoyed a murder mystery as much as “Murder in the Maple Woods,” by Claire Ackroyd since I discovered Louise Penny’s Three Pines Mysteries years ago. (And, for any other reader for whom the adventures of Inspector Gamache are a beloved point-of-reference, I’m happy to report that there are certainly similarities here. If you keep reading, you’ll see what I mean.)
Released by Maine Authors Publishing in 2020, this fast-paced, 181-page mystery is Ackroyd’s first novel. A landscape designer and independent organic inspector from central Maine, Ackroyd knows her way around the farms, forests, and people of her state and it shows in this page-turning, heart-warmer of a mystery novel.
In “Murder in the Maple Woods,” we follow protagonist Simone Thibodeau from the remote sugar camps of northwest Maine to the back-to-the-land outposts around Liberty and back again as she navigates young adulthood, the changing of the seasons, and . . . murder.
When a body is found in her uncle’s maple woods during sugaring season, the authorities pronouce it an accident. But Simone’s knowledge of the out-of-the-way sugar camps on the Quebecois border, the maple industry, and its producers lead her to suspect foul play. What follows is a lively adventure in amateur sleuthing grounded in the true-to-life portrait of a small, modern, family-run maple operation and a young woman’s coming of age.
More maple-procedural than police-procedural, “Murder in the Maple Woods” is made real and eminently readable by Ackroyd’s portrayal of an endearingly imperfect, contemporary, cross-border family. Any maple syrup maker, from those with the smallest hobby to the biggest market players, will enjoy how the work, tools and world of syrup making move the plot along. And anyone who has traveled beyond coastal Maine will recognize Ackroyd’s portrait of this unique working agricultural and silvicultural landscape as it undergoes climate, economic and cultural change.
Not every mystery novel is literature, and Ackroyd’s first effort is not perfect. (You may notice a plot hiccup or two.) But Ackroyd’s careful development of characers, their relationships, and their settings bear all the halmarks of the real deal.
So you can expect to be charmed by Simone, Ackroyd’s unsure and often sullen amateur sleuth. You can plan for your mouth to water for the lovingly-described fresh, seasonal produce and home-baked goods she eats. And you can look forward to imagining yourself helping out at her family’s sugar camp, French phrases and gestures in the offing.
But, my favorite part was Simone’s description of the land AAckroyd so evidently adores: the “merganser mother and her endless stream offspring,” the moose “cow and calf, half asleep in the hot afternoon, twitching their long ears and occasionally searching the shallow water for a snack,” and “the purple, blue, and pink New England asters . . . in full bloom and mixing wth the last, late golden rods and Queen-Anne’s lace.”
I’d like to know more about the people and places that inhabit Ackroyd’s life and imagination. And I hope we haven’t seen the last of Simone Thibodeau and her wild and dangerous Maine wilderness. If you like murder mysteries, Maine, and maple, don’t miss this read!