Thomas E. Ricks knows that as far as Bangor and its neighboring towns go, another novelist has a claim on setting murderous activities there. At one point in the lean, wily and unexpectedly affecting “Everyone Knows But You: A Tale of Murder on the Maine Coast,” FBI agent Ryan Tapia thinks of Bangor’s state insane asylum, “It looked like something out of a Stephen King novel” – a nod to “the town’s most famous resident.” It’s a mark of Ricks’ writerly agility that in this, his second work of fiction, he justifies his encroachment on King country.

There’s a running joke in “Everyone Knows But You” about how an FBI agent has to be pretty incompetent to end up where Ryan has, but he didn’t move to Bangor for the job. He’s there because he asked to be posted “as far from San Diego as possible” following a car accident that, as readers gradually learn through gingerly meted-out details, killed his wife and children.

Now it’s May – five months later – and Ryan has been called to Isle au Haut, where there’s a body bobbing in the water at low tide. The dead man’s legs are twisted in a lobster fishery’s rope. Ryan figures the guy got tangled up while pulling traps. But why would a lobsterman’s death require the FBI’s attention?

As the flagrantly weed-smoking national park ranger who showed Ryan the body explains, “We don’t do homicide investigations.” Sure enough, Ryan sees that someone has bashed in the dead man’s skull. The ranger gives the state’s Department of Marine Resources the number on the buoy that’s on the rope snaring the dead body; this generates an ID for the fishing-license holder: “That’s Ricky Cutts…Lobsterman out of Liberty Island.” Since Liberty Island has no police force – “Locals don’t want one,” Ryan remembers his predecessor telling him – he has to open a federal investigation into Cutts’ death.

An FBI agent can’t exactly blend in on Liberty Island: Ryan knows he “could not have looked more out of place. In rural Maine, even bankers dressed like they were going deer hunting.” He decides on the direct approach. The morning after he sees Cutts’ body, he stops for breakfast at a busy restaurant, where he gets the cold shoulder from the waitress but overhears the local chatter: Although there’s been no official announcement, everyone knows that Cutts is dead. Ryan strikes up a dialogue with a fisherman who doesn’t have to be told he’s talking to an FBI man. Their conversation includes an exchange that will be familiar to consumers of crime dramas: Ryan’s “Who around here would want to kill Ricky Cutts?” is met with, “Hell, who wouldn’t?”

Turns out that Cutts was widely detested and that his wife fled the island with a battered face a decade earlier. Ryan proceeds with the business of interviewing relevant parties around the island, among them the woman who runs a women’s shelter now harboring Cutts’ two teenage daughters. As Ryan makes the rounds conducting his inquiry, no one gives off anything resembling an air of innocence. The takeaway for Ryan is the extent to which Liberty Islanders protect their own. Never mind an FBI guy originally from out West: As one islander tells Ryan, “We consider people from the rest of Maine to be outsiders.”


The town’s insularity has the inflexibility of an article of faith; even a retired CIA man who summers on the island admonishes Ryan, “Do what the local law enforcement agencies do: Let the natives handle it.” But Ryan won’t, and as pages turn, readers may sense that his investment in the case isn’t strictly professional. For someone who’s grieving and alone, the locals’ reflexive protectiveness of their own can read like an alluring closeness.

Ricks, who possesses a matching set of Pulitzer Prizes for reporting he did on two separate teams, for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, has come through with a thriller that’s beautifully observed throughout, with a morally nuanced denouement. The book’s point of view can rove suddenly, introducing porous narrative borders in a genre built on well-defined ones, and this strategy sometimes discombobulates before it elucidates. Nevertheless, it’s the dogged and heartrendingly sympathetic Ryan’s perspective that prevails.

By the end of “Everyone Knows But You,” he understands that it’s the highest praise when, after he makes a canny deduction, an islander tells him, “Now you’re thinking like a Maine fisherman.” Of course, keen-eyed readers will note that Ryan already earned his stripes a few pages earlier, when he used “lobster” as a verb.

Nell Beram is co-author of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.” Her work has recently appeared in “The New Yorker” and at Salon and Bright Lights Film Journal.

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