Carla Neggers could have aptly given her latest suspense novel the classic title “Worlds in Collision,” by Russian writer Immanuel Velikovsky. But “Heron’s Cove” is fitting, for it is in this small seaside Maine town where multiple worlds collide, all centered around an anticipated theft of a priceless collection of jewelry that dates from Czarist Russia.
That’s just the beginning of the maelstrom created by the twists and turns of this brilliantly plotted novel.
At the heart of the story, there are also the worlds of Emma Sharpe — a former nun and art theft investigator and current FBI agent; and those of her lover, Colin Donovan — a former lobsterman and marine patrol officer and current undercover FBI operative.
Add to this the worlds of both their families that generate terrific cross-currents in the story. Not to mention the splendorous world of Russian art and the outfall of the collapse of the Soviet Union — including the rise of profiteers who make their money gun-running and capturing sizeable riches from the lucrative oil trade.
Emma and Colin grew up only miles apart on the coast of Maine, but never knew one another until they met through a murder investigation of a nun at the convent where Emma was once a novice. Subsequently, they fell hard for each other.
The story opens in Hurley’s restaurant on a fog-shrouded evening, with Emma matching Colin’s brothers in tasting fine single-malt Scotch poured by Father Finian Bracken. The brothers know little more about Emma than Colin did when he fell for her. They grill her about Colin’s whereabouts and whether he’s safe, but Emma can’t divulge anything.
Meanwhile, Colin is aboard a boat on a hot, humid night in southern Florida with two Russian thugs and their American ringleader. Colin is tied and bound, on the edge of being shot if he doesn’t divulge the location of the weapons he’s promised to procure for them.
Enter the Nightingale to Heron’s Cove. The gleaming yacht belongs to Dmitri Rusakov, a Russian oil tycoon. He has learned that Natalie Warren, his former step-daughter, is expected from Phoenix bearing the case of jewelry her mother stole from Dmitri before they divorced. Warren is coming to Heron’s Cove in hopes of having Emma’s grandfather, who runs Sharpe Fine Art Recovery, appraise the collection for her.
Slightly in advance of both Dmitri’s and Natalie’s arrival is that of Tatiana Pavlova, a mysterious young Russian jewelry designer from London. She is also an exquisite painter, one enraptured by Russian folk tales of mythic birds. The first she shares upon meeting Emma is one of a nightingale.
All of Neggers’ characters are complex, richly drawn and essential to the story. Throughout, there is growing doubt in both Emma’s and Colin’s minds whether their relationship, despite the passion, is truly tenable. Each has many secrets they can’t — or won’t — divulge.
Neggers deftly exploits that both are talented FBI agents. A great deal of the plot turns around questions they pose and attempt to answer about the case each is working on — a past and pending art theft, and a splinter faction of low-level gun runners who are desperate to get in the game now that their boss is in jail.
Is it just coincidence that both cases are centered on prominent Russian figures? And why are there growing links that tie them both to Heron’s Cove?
There is a small, tangible story about the jailed arms trafficker visiting Tatiana Pavlova in London to place an order for a set of Russian nesting dolls. The anecdote is apt to the structure of the book, for the plot of “Heron’s Cove” is very much like a set of such dolls. It is so complex and wonderfully convoluted that even after the climax, it takes several pages for various characters to fully fit everything together.
I haven’t been this entertained and entranced by a suspense novel in some time. Even though Neggers is a New York Times bestselling novelist, author of more than 60 books translated into 24 languages, she was unknown to me until I read “Heron’s Cove.”
I’m delighted to discover there’s a shelf of her books yet waiting to be read.
Frank O Smith’s novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. He can be reached at: