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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Murder Most Puzzling: Review

Spent the last couple days dipping into an academic cozy mystery--Murder Most Puzzling by Lillian S. Robinson. Dr. Margaret James, known as Jamie, has just returned to the U.S. after separating from her French husband.  They had found each other during the '60s at Berkeley, but when he inherited the title of Count his values and hers no longer meshed.  She is trying to sort her life out when she gets a request from a life-long friend to come to Ebbing College and fill her teaching assignment as a professor of poetry.  Becca Parsons has been diagnosed with cancer and Jamie is more than willing to help her friend out.

Jamie also takes over Becca's duties in sorting through the Ebbing family documents and comes across a 19th-century journal by one of the family's matriarchs.  It tells of forbidden love between Elizabeth Ebbing Brock and her best friend Helen "Nell" Breckenridge.  A family scandal resulted when the girls were "outed" by Lizzie's brother and there is also a mysterious fire that wipes out most of Nell's family right at the time they are trying to get her psychiatric treatment for her "diseased mind" and set her up with an appropriate marriage.  

Jamie just begins to grapple with the difficulties of getting the manuscript published when it disappears.  Who wants to suppress the documents?  Then one of the other professors (and a distant relative of the Ebbing family) is killed.  Both she and Jamie had been involved with the Dean of the College, and the police settle on Jamie as the prime suspect....a woman scorned and all that.  Jamie is determined to find out who has stolen the manuscript and who has murdered Professor Sharon Reilly.  And if those are the same person.  She's also doing research into the 117-year old scandal and fire to try and determine if the motive for the modern day crimes lie in the past.

This is a fairly decent academic mystery.  Certainly not the best one ever--but the characters are great in limited ways.  I particularly like Jamie's friendship with Becca and her mentoring relationship with three of the students at the college.  I wasn't particularly taken with Jamie's left-over swingin' sixties habit of jumping in and out of bed with just about every man she comes across in the book.  As one of her friends notes, it's a little difficult to "follow [her] love life without a score card." She comes back to the States and takes up with a fellow she used to know named Nick (who has a wife, but they're in a non-monogamous relationship, so it's okay) just long enough to bring him into the story and then abandon him in California when she heads to Pennsylvania and Ebbing College.  There she meets and falls into bed with Walt (the dreamy Dean, who also has a wife--but she's an alcoholic and crazy and in an institution, so that's okay too).  Meanwhile, she goes up to a local inn a couple of times and meets another man who she'd happily go to bed with if it weren't that her soon-to-be-ex-husband shows up hoping to reboot their marriage....and....you guessed it, she can't resist a couple of rolls in the hay with him for old time's sake.  Or something. 

Honestly, I just think Robinson was beating the reader over the head with sexual freedom and how different is supposedly is now (1980s in the book) as opposed to the 1800s and their views of "unnatural lusts."  But then, it's not really all that great now, because we still have homophobic people running around upset over this journal....not to mention Jamie's other friend Erin who comes to teach history when Sharon Reilly is killed (and who happens to be a lesbian).  A lot less effort on that front and more attention to making the mystery more of a mystery and we'd have an all-out winner.  There weren't really any red herrings to speak of and it doesn't do a lot for the detective novel when your villain is telegraphed mid-way through--at least that's when I figured it out.  Two and a half stars.

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