As I undertake a scene in Prague for book two, I have firmly in mind Anne Faigen’s portrayal in Frame Work of the city’s history and its compelling reminders of the Holocaust. Faigen brings the city alive with warmly interesting characters, notably an art history professor who explores the city with a keen eye and an awareness of its controversial past. I’m so grateful I read the book before visiting Prague last fall. I added scenes from the book as stops on my walking tours of the city and was richly rewarded!
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.
From the Golden Age of Mystery, Catherine Aird’s Parting Breath was a gentle deceiver for me. A classic cozy. I enjoyed getting to know the all-too-human Inspector Sloan and all the players at the University of Calleshire, where students are clever adventurers and faculty are so specialized they fall short of genuine conversation. I loved the English Professor who’d been at it long enough to be suspicious of the murderer from the start (because he didn’t act like what he professed to be) and who endured disappointment and deception by focusing on her own scholarly path. Red herrings everywhere! I think Catherine Aird must have enjoyed writing this whodunit, and I’d like to take that delight in deception, puzzlement, and storytelling into my current WIP.
Thoughts on Bernadette Pajer’s academic mystery, Capacity for Murder
My shaky command of electricity was not an obstacle to enjoying Capacity for Murder, the third Professor Bradshaw Mystery by Bernadette Pajer. While Bradshaw is an acclaimed expert in electricity at the start of the 1900s, Pajer gives ample information for the reader to understand how an electrotherapy device figures into a murder at a health resort on the coast of Washington State. There is nothing dry or erudite about this academic mystery. It is an evocative, fast-paced story of a highly-principled but flawed investigator and his unflagging hunt for a murderer without conscience. I was especially impressed with Pajer’s ability to show the various settings of the story through the sensitive perception of the professor. Also, Bradshaw’s tenderness with his 10-year-old child is a beautiful and effective counter to the cold-blooded murder of a beloved man that opens the book. I’m eager to read more of the Professor Bradshaw Mysteries.
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.
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!
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.