Irene Ziegler likes to tell fans on her website that she's a perfect parallel parker and "the voice you love to hate" on GPS cell phones.
Now we can add her dazzling debut novel, "Ashes to Water," to the list of things to love about this Richmond, Va., actress/playwright.
Ziegler is scary good in "Ashes," a double whodunit riddled with fantastically flawed characters hiding behind all sorts of lies and secrets in a small Florida town where everyone's in everyone's business or back pocket.
And as if that's not enough, someone's lighting up houses under construction near the town lake.
Murder, arson, the sweltering Florida heat and humidity: It's a smorgasbord of evil that would push anyone and any town to the edge.
"Ashes" is set in the '80s, in the gossipy village of DeLeon, where Annie Bartlett has been called home to bury her murdered father ---- the apparent victim of his oar-swinging girlfriend, Della, a near dead-ringer for Annie's late mother.
Annie reluctantly decides to help Della by looking for the real killer, both because she's inexplicably drawn to this mysterious woman who looks like her mother and because she's buying what Della's selling ---- that she's being framed.
Before long, though, Annie realizes that her prying has made lots of people uncomfortable and that her dead parents may have harbored a few sordid secrets of their own.
It's hard to believe this is Ziegler's first full-length novel ---- she has written plays and non-fiction books before this ---- because she spins such a mesmerizing tale, folding and unfolding layers of her byzantine plot like berries in batter.
She's also seriously good with dialogue and lyrical, spot-on prose, using deceptively simple lines like "Her life, like a flatsided rock, skipped from tragedy to tragedy" to add depth and dimension to characters that pop off the page.
As a result, the book is steeped in wonderfully nuanced characters: a dangerously bad-to-the-bone boyfriend, a Golden Boy firefighter, a my-way-or-the-highway judge and her odd-duck developmentally disabled son, a bellicose Miccosukee Indian developer, the brassy, bosomy owner of a popular diner, and an up-against-it sister.
And then there's Annie, who occasionally engages an apparition of her dead mother in revealing mother-daughter conversations like it's as right as rain.
It's all great fun in what is as much a whodunit as a whyfor, as much a murder mystery as an exploration of the tricky, fragile nature of relationships.
The rapidly rising body count leading up to the final pages feels almost Shakespearean, where circumstance and chance and fate weigh heavily in who lives and who dies. (And, actually, it's a good thing Ziegler ran out of story after nearly 400 pages, because another 50 and there may not have been anyone left standing in DeLeon. Hello, "Hamlet"!)
Ziegler has crafted an entertaining, nearly flawless read, unless you really want to quibble about a slightly incredulous, tension-ratcheting turn of the screw at the end that doesn't detract from the story. Although "Ashes" is essentially a sequel to Ziegler's "Rules of the Lake" ---- a collection of short stories about Annie's character-forming adolescent years ---- you don't need to read "Rules" first.
Fair warning: This isn't a book you can set aside easily for TV or dinner or time with the family or anything else, because Ziegler doesn't pad her pages with superfluous, boring passages like too many of today's readers-be-damned, self-indulgent authors. There just aren't many jumping-off points.
Bob Masingale is a city editor for the North County Times, and a frequent contributor to Goodreads.com, where this review first appeared.Good for her. Good for us.
"Ashes to Water"
**** (out of four)
Author: Irene Ziegler
Publisher: Five Star