The subtitle of Joseph Finora’s appealing debut full-length fiction Red Like Wine — “The North Fork Harbor Vineyard Murders” — gives away the completed image: “red like “blood,” and there’s plenty of it here—four homicides to be exact.
Though the reader may suspect who’s done wrong early on, what isn’t apparent at first is the extent to which the North Fork not only defines setting, but character. Finora, who describes himself as an amateur winemaker and grape grower living in Laurel, in the heart of North Fork wine country, knows how to differentiate those who share a common past in regional farming and fishing from those who hail from the city. Local farmers, fishermen, service personnel and professionals on the North Fork tend to bond and to adopt a slightly insular attitude toward outsiders.
The author, a full-time North Fork resident who is familiar with such cultural differences, knows how to work them effectively into his murder mystery, appreciating both the comic and serious turns. His attention to character and setting are his strong suit, and North Fork (and Shelter Island) regulars will likely delight in trying to pinpoint various locales, if not personalities. And they’ll no doubt take pleasure in the turn of events. As one character remarks, “Nothing’s happened in North Fork Harbor for about 200 years. I guess they’re making up for it now.”
Fitting in is not always easy for city folk, even for young, likable, Bronx-born crime reporter Vin[cent] Gusto and his sometimes girlfriend Shanin Blanc. Freelancing since being downsized from his regular hard-hitting city job in Manhattan, Vin tries to make a go of it, but it’s tough, the economy’s poor and he’s broke. When he unexpectedly receives a call from a travel magazine to do a puff piece on the North Fork, he gladly accepts. But he’s told he must make a North Fork winemaker central to his piece. And so he arranges for an interview and calls his former girlfriend, Shanin, a photographer, to do the story with him. Readers sense the kindling of their former romance, but love must wait.
Unbeknownst to Vic, the designated interviewee, Dr. Franisco Lambrusco (a sparkling red!), a reclusive, internationally known Italian winemaker and agricultural scientist and vineyard owner, has just been murdered, stabbed with a lethal injection and dumped into a wine vat with a bunch of grapes shoved into his mouth. Dr. Frank had been secretly working on cultivating a unique kind of grape that may well make the world a better place, especially for the poor—much to the dismay of big time money men who pressure him to sell out.
Vin is pulled off his assignment by an editorial assistant who tells him the story’s dead (the magazine editor has the same last name as someone who will become a prime suspect, but that fact, recalled toward the end, is noted as a mere coincidence, which it is—an odd bit of story plotting). Vin, however, knows how to hustle in a pleasant manner, and he gets another magazine, with national scope, interested in his story, which has now become a murder mystery.
The local police are not thrilled about a city guy hanging around, but they’re not that pleased with each other. Aside from the lore about viticulture and magazine journalism informing the narrative, Finora knows his way around police politics and the jockeying for promotion and domain. Though the style is at times predictable, it comes impressively alive in dialogue, particularly when the different investigators clash (the top guy is Sergeant St. Charles, originally from the city [his name may well reference the historic Missouri wineries]).