Latest Bay Tanner mystery meanders

It was more than 10 years ago I picked up a self-published novel by a recent arrival on Hilton Head Island and was both surprised and delighted to find this retired accountant had a real gift for mystery writing.

It wasn't long before Kathryn Wall was taken on by a leading publisher, and she proved her talent by producing a new Bay Tanner mystery every year. With each novel I could see her growing more assured as her stories became more complex and satisfying.

Then came last year's "Canaan's Gate," which was a disappointment. The plot seemed thinner and, as I said at the time, "I can't help feeling that the series is running down a bit." Now, less than a year later, there is a new one -- and I'm sorry to say, it is even more of a letdown.

"Jericho Cay" starts with an interesting premise, and it gave me a momentary feeling Wall was back on track. It begins as her three-person detective agency -- consisting of Bay, computer-whiz Eric Whiteside and her new husband, Red Tanner, her murdered husband's brother -- is approached by a writer with a problem. His name is Winston W. Wolfe, he has been the author of a number of sensational books about crime, and he is researching a new book on the disappearance of a reclusive billionaire named Morgan Tyler Bell. Bell is missing and their assignment would be to find him.

Several years before, Bell and an assistant had vanished from his home on a nearby island called Jericho Cay, leaving behind a dead housekeeper and no clues to where they had gone or why they had left.

The police had looked with no luck, and while the case was still open, nothing much was happening.

The housekeeper's death had been judged a suicide, and it was hard to even prove that a crime had been committed. Wolfe had come to Bay's agency to see if they could, in effect, find an ending for his book.

Bay's instinct is to turn him down -- the police had found nothing, and there was no reason to think they'd do any better -- but when he offers to pay double their usual fee, they decide to try. For the next hundred pages or so, nothing much happens. Wolfe keeps demanding they meet him at odd hours, in strange places, and they invariably arrive to find he has already left.

For Bay, the strains involved in having her husband working for her cause problems in their marriage, and she presents an assortment of false leads that go nowhere.

I began to get the feeling the author wasn't sure where her story was going and was creating problems to fill up space until she figured it out. Bay is shot at, a boat blows up, Red's car breaks down, an old house catches fire -- but none of these events seem to bring us any closer to understanding what's going on. In their frustration they write a letter of resignation, but it is never sent.

Finally, with no apparent solution in sight, things begin to happen. They provide some much-needed action, although not enough clarity. I am still not quite sure why they were hired in the first place, let alone why they stuck with a case that seemed to be going nowhere. The early novels in this series really kept my attention, but I was not sorry to see this one end.

I still enjoy the sight and sound of life on the island -- dinner at Jump and Phil's, scurrying around Coligny Plaza and Shelter Cove, racing down U.S. 278 -- but this time it wasn't enough. If you haven't read any of Wall's books, I'd advise going back to the first one to find out why I got hooked on the adventures of Bay Tanner in the first place.