Writer and poet Anne Britting Oleson suspends the opening of her engrossing thriller/mystery, “Aventurine and the Reckoning,” between two stories. The first is the death of Shep Genthner. His disappearance has caused grievous consequences for his 20-something son, Paul. The second has Aventurine Morrow, a best-selling nonfiction writer, pursing a story about Genevieve Smithson, a 94-year-old woman who was a British spy during World War II.

The book, Oleson’s fifth novel, opens with Aventurine eager to set out for England to interview Smithson, who has never before divulged her life as a spy. Smithson had lied about her age as a teen, so at just 16 was trained as a stealth killer of German soldiers.

“Take Paul with you,” Aventurine’s twin sister pleads in the book’s opening line. “He needs you.” Paul has been withdrawn and severely depressed since his father disappeared during a global solo sail. Aventurine is reluctant to encumber her research trip, yet she adores her nephew, so she agrees.

Aventurine meets Paul at the Boston airport for the flight to Heathrow. “He was uncommunicative… Until that morning, I hadn’t seen him in months. I felt his confusion, his pain, his differentness.” Paul tells his aunt that he’d wanted to join his father on his around-the-world sail, but his father had insisted on going alone. The young man harbors deep guilt that he hadn’t insisted. “I could have saved him. I could have died trying.”

When the two arrive in London, a fleeting figure on a bridge provokes an inarticulate dread in Aventurine. Aunt and nephew travel to York to meet with Smithson, where Aventurine sees the man again. Her excitement at meeting Smithson “changed to raging anxiety, as though my brain had flipped a switch,” Oleson writes.

Smithson is fit and alert, belying her age. She had observed their approach from the second-floor window, and asks after the man who appeared to be with them. Aventurine insists it was just she and Paul. Only later, as she comes to appreciate Smithson’s acute understanding of the dangers of the world, does she realize that the sharp-eyed old woman had been attempting to warn her.


The man following her is Neil Barret, her boyfriend and fellow student at New York University, where the two had studied journalism when they were young. She’d been in love, and thought he loved her in return. But one morning she awoke to find him gone. Also gone: Her manuscript with its blockbuster secrets on fraud and extortion involving members of Congress, her computer and all her notes. After graduating, she picked up a newspaper and learned he’d won a National Press Award for the story. For her story.

Aventurine struggled for years to put the episode behind her, primarily by becoming a famous, sought-after freelancer herself. She hopes her telling of the story of Smithson’s life will give her career another significant lift.

“I hadn’t seen (Barrett) in almost twenty-five years… I had vowed back then to get over him… to repair the ravages he had caused with his calculated cruelty.”

Oleson, who lives in central Maine, makes skillful use of many italicized sections that indicate Smithson’s answers to Aventurine’s interview questions. “I still remember the first man I killed,” she tells her in their first interview. “A sentry, no more than a boy, but I didn’t know that until he lay, gently gurgling his lifeblood away on the ground before me. Not much older than I was… It was like being blooded after the fox hunt, save for the fact that I took him from behind, reaching around to plunge my knife into his throat, as I had been taught.”

Later, before Smithson unlocks several bolts on her door so the two can go out for a walk, she has Aventurine select a stout walking stick from her collection, taking another for herself. “I trust no one,” she says.

One afternoon, Paul returns from a long walk, appreciatively more sullen, more agitated than usual. The change in the young man sets off an interweaving of aggrieved tension between aunt and nephew. At the same time, Aventurine is noticing parallels between her own life and that of Smithson. Both had worked hard to perfect their crafts. Both had loved and lost, Smithson a husband to Alzheimer’s, Aventurine, the treacherous Barrett. Because of Barrett, Aventurine had never allowed herself to fall in love again.

Oleson threads Barrett’s shadowy presence through the story. When he finally makes an actual appearance, he is friendly and nice. But the story turns dark and ominous. “Aventurine and the Reckoning” is a satisfying mystery, marked by sharp plotting and memorable characters. Oleson, who has already written a sequel, deftly interweaves several mysteries, escalating the suspense to the end.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. It was also named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by Shelf Unbound. Smith can be reached via his website: frankosmithstories.com.

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