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.

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