Prose that sings (academic mystery)

Carolyn Marie Wilkins’ academic mystery Melody for Murder introduced me to a world I’ve never seen, from the poverty of Chicago’s South Side to the glitz of charity galas in the African American community. Protagonist Bertie Bigelow is a young widow and a music professor at a South Side community college where she nurtures young talent and leads the choir. When one of her protogees embarrasses the college at a performance, Bertie’s job is on the line. Her effort to understand LaShawn Thomas’s behavior propels her into world of evil she’s never experienced. She’s forced to confront all her assumptions about the movers and shakers she thought she knew.

Wilkins’ plot is a dynamic puzzle that had me pointing to new suspects and discarding others with every scene shift. Even more skillful is her prose. She has a genius for sound and a pen that can bring music to life for her reader. Her ear for dialect and nuance flows easily from characters that spout Latin phrases to street talk. Bertie’s eye for fashion gives the reader welcome breaks from the violence and desperation she encounters, as striking African dresses, sumptuous furs, and power suits contrast with gang bandanas and shabby cardigans. In short, Wilkins’ characters spring to life in full color and voice as they make their moves against the Chicago setting. Melody for Murder is a great read!

 

Best academic mystery I’ve read this millennium

My quest to read a wide variety of academic mysteries led me to Tace Baker’s Bluffing is Murder. Protagonist Lauren Rousseau is a linguistics professor at Agawam College in the coastal town of Ashford, Massachusetts. Charles Heard’s murder on the bluffs above Holt Beach exposes a web of deceit that has authorities looking at innocent citizens as murder suspects. Their first suspect is Lauren who found the body on her customary run on the beach one summer day.

Two aspects of this carefully plotted well-written mystery stood out for me. One is the tight integration with the community of Ashford and neighboring towns that is often missing from campus mysteries. Lauren buys her insurance from the victim Charles Heard, dates a man who often assists the local police, takes karate lessons with schoolchildren, and frequents the village bakery. While Lauren brings her expertise with languages to bear on the case, the mystery is not confined to campus affairs and the scholarly community. This not only broadens Baker’s reader appeal but, I think, also heightens the impact of the murders (and there are several) for readers.

Another highlight of this mystery for me is the artistic way Baker integrates the coastal setting and its natural beauty. Although it has been fifteen years since I lived on Boston’s northshore, Baker brought the Ipswich area back to life for me with familiar sights, sounds, and smells. The author’s keen observation of detail is skillfully filtered through her character’s eyes and reported in scene-specific detail through Lauren’s usual activities—walking her little dog Wulu, running on the beach, clamming, biking the steep narrow village streets, exploring hidden passages in the magnificent mansion on the bluffs, and driving on twisty country roads. Place has a central role in the story.

Bluffing is Murder is the best academic mystery I’ve read this millennium, and I hope Tace Baker is planning more Lauren Rousseau mysteries.