I focus on academic mysteries in my blog entries. These are not formal book reviews, simply my thoughts as an author and avid reader of traditional mysteries. Often, something about the way characters are drawn or the way settings are introduced motivates me to freshen my style, broaden my skills, or simply admire a master of the craft. If you have a favorite academic mystery, whether it’s recent or long ago, please share.
Poison Ivy, by Cynthia Riggs
Cynthia Riggs’ Martha’s Vineyard mystery Poison Ivy takes place at a small college on the Vineyard, Ivy Green, where nonagenarian crime-solver Victoria Trumbull is an adjunct poetry professor. I loved Mrs. Trumbull as a poetry teacher focused on her students’ expression in various poetic forms; and as advocate for three students whose research is plagiarized by their tenure-seeking sociology professor. An overarching theme is the (often abusive) power struggle that plays out in a dozen deadly ways in the college tenure process.
Mrs. Trumbull finds the first body– a tenured professor dead a few weeks without anyone missing him. Thanks to the caretaker’s dog who has a nose for cadavers, more bodies are exhumed. Soon the campus is pock-marked by graves dug by a perfectly respectable serial killer twisted and scarred from his own tenure ordeal. As the drama unfolded, I cheered for the two women who opted out of tenure madness and admired Riggs’ masterful use of absurdity. Brava!
Gethsemane Brown has gumption, moxie, and spunk, and she needs all three to solve the Murder in G Major. Alexia Gordon’s debut mystery takes us to the southwest coast of Ireland where Gethsemane, an award-winning musician, is challenged with shaping up the orchestra of a local school in time to win back a coveted trophy. She wouldn’t attempt this impossible job except her dream job, conductor of the Cork Philharmonic, was snatched from her grip by someone’s girlfriend. Can it get any worse? Yes, her temporary home is haunted by the ghost of a famous musician who wants her to find out who murdered him. Only someone like Gethsemane can marshall all the talent at her disposal to win the day. With a few tears and more than a few belts of bourbon, she succeeds against all odds. I love this new heroine and can’t wait for the next Gethsemane Brown Mystery!
Gosh, I thought I knew every academic mystery author! Imagine my delight when my editor called my attention to Canadian author Cathy Ace and her dual-sleuth academic mystery series. Former police detective, Bud Anderson, and psychology professor, Cait Morgan, solve crimes together in wonderful locations around the globe. Most recent in the series is The Corpse with the Ruby Lips, set in Budapest. Since I visited Budapest just over a year ago, I was happy to start there with the Cait Morgan Mysteries. Any needed background appeared just in time, and I admired the way Ace handled the history and culture of the city as integral to the story. Best of all was the dialogue between Bud and Cait as they problem solve together, disagree with one another, and express their deep caring as a newly married couple. This series is a keeper, and I know I’ll enjoy the locales the books before Budapest.
Nancy Skopin’s sixth Nikki Hunter PI mystery, A Side Order of Murder, deals with the deadly results when a physics professor involves a small hand-picked group of students in controversial research. Nikki is hired by one of the students who’s sure his professor’s death was not suicide and who fears someone is also trying to kill him. (Hint: the technology wizardry reminded me of the more recent version of the Manchurian Candidate.) Nikki leads the student on a thrilling race for their lives that combines Outward-Bound pedagogy with old-fashioned do-or-die. Side Order is a lean, fast-paced plot featuring a timid student who grows into a resourceful confident man on Nikki’s watch. While the rest of the series may not be academic, I’ll be reading every book!
Peter Lovesey has written two academic mysteries, one featuring Peter Diamond, The Last Detective, the other featuring Sergeant Cribb, Swing, Swing Together. In both cases, I marveled at the plot twists, and I enjoyed the ongoing tension generated by the personality of each detective.
What a master Lovesey is of leading the reader to absolute certainty that each suspect in turn must be the killer. I failed to guess the correct identity both times. And that little added mystery concerning each title’s meaning? He reveals it only the end, both times, and it feels like the cherry on top of the hot-fudge sundae.
There’s nothing formulaic about Lori Rader-Day’s academic mystery, The Black Hour. The 2014 mystery from Seventh Street Books is a dark gritty look at the power differential between professors and students and, especially, the deadly consequences that can result from abuse of that power in academia. It is filled with insight into the dynamics of healing from trauma and the fascinating ways both professor and student confront and/or rationalize blatantly unethical behavior.
Writing mysteries feels like driving a coach with four feisty horses under my reins: my two sleuths, Kyle and Lyssa; the killer; and the victim. Letting each of them have their heads would mean disaster, but they’re the force that propels the story. My job is to keep them working together. No wonder my hands hurt all the time!
This photo shows book two of The Penningtons Investigate, obviously a work in progress. The 20 chapters are drafted, and I’ve just done a critical read-through and chapter-by-chapter analysis, noting flaws, missed opportunities, development of the character arcs (his, hers, and theirs), progress of the investigation, and so on. I didn’t do that for book one, but my wonderful editor did.
I humbly learn with each book.
The plan is to have the full revision in the hands of my wonderful editor and my beta readers by year’s end. I’ll bet your process is different, isn’t it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!