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!
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.
Authors have their share of good reviews and bad, but for this author it’s heart-warming when a reviewer really gets what I’ve tried to do with a book. That’s why I feel compelled to share a line from a review of Planted, posted to Amazon on July 17. The reader, Mr. Herman, begins by calling the book “charming,” and asserts, “At the end, I felt as sorry for one of the villains as I did for the man who was murdered….that takes a good writer!”
When I read the review, I was speechless, and a smile spread across my face. I try to bring compassion to my writing, not just for the victim but for many of the characters. Certainly for the victim’s loved ones, and sometimes for a villain whose life has gone haywire. Thank you, Mr. Herman, for responding to to that facet of the story and for taking the time to say so!
And now, back to writing book two of The Penningtons Investigate . . .
Colleges have come a long was from the old Lecture/Recitation model of education. Today’s undergraduate students learn valuable life lessons in the field through civil engagement, and they get hands-on real-life experience by participating in their professors’ research projects. As an author and avid reader, I’m enjoying the new crop of academic mysteries that show students gathering and analyzing data and engaging in other aspects of timely scholarly research.
Two authors are stand outs: Lesley A. Diehl and Charlene D’Avanzo.
Diehl’s character Laura Murphy is a psychology professor in upstate New York. In the 2016 mystery from Creekside Publishing, Failure is Fatal, Laura’s ongoing study in sexual harassment on campus is at the heart of the story. A student is murdered, and the description of the murder is one of the anonymous responses to the study’s current round of data gathering. This is not a grisly or grim tale, however, as Diehl’s humor and Laura’s ability to tick people off keep the reader laughing and eyerolling all the way to the end.
An environmental educator and researcher, D’Avanzo specializes in marine ecology. Her 2016 (Torrey House Publishing) academic mystery, Cold Blood Hot Sea, throws the reader into the contentious field of environmental research, including scientific fraud and sabotage. At the book’s heart is a smart resourceful warm-hearted woman scholar, Dr. Mara Tusconi, who teaches and does research at the Maine Oceanographic Institution, surrounded by eager students and ambitious colleagues. Every twist of this page turner reveals more about the cutting edge field of study, its methods, and the scholars in training who will carry the work forward.
Looking for a compelling read that educates you while it challenges and satisfies your inner sleuth? Pick up Failure is Fatal or Cold Blood Hot Sea and hang on tight.
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.
Thoughts on Sylvia Nash, The Book of Secrets
Academic Mystery, Christian book
So often I hear “page turner” or “can’t put it down” as hallmarks of a good mystery. The Book of Secrets, by Sylvia Nash, is a thoughtful Christian mystery whose interwoven themes of secrets, friendship, and forgiveness are careful developed through the interaction of a cohesive group of friends and those they are closest to. While the story has plenty of action and suspense, the book is best enjoyed by savoring and reflecting on a few chapters at a time. I don’t know many mysteries that have touched me so deeply or allowed me to know and love the victim and learn from the victim’s wisdom.
The book opens with Aunt Mae’s death, and the reader comes to know Aunt Mae through those who knew her and who seek justice for her murder. Six girls wrote their secrets in a book Aunt Mae kept in a private place, and one of those secrets led to the murders of three people on three successive Sundays. The six girlfriends, now grown women, disagree about revealing their secrets in order to solve the crime, and it’s through their emotional debate that Nash explores forgiving one another, forgiving ourselves, and trusting that those who love us can and will forgive us for our human failings.
The heroine, Millicent Anderson, a religion professor at Edmonds College, is a strong determined woman who drives the action to successful resolution. She is criticized by some of the characters as being perfect, as not having dark secrets, and not understanding why her friends insisted on protecting the devastating errors they made in the past. I felt distant from Millicent for those reasons, too, and I saw that as a weakness of the book. Nevertheless, this was a satisfying mystery, rich in Christian values. I strongly recommend it for a fireside read over several evenings, with time to reflect between sessions.