Category Archives: Margaret Maron

She’s a Highly Specialized Key Component of Operational Unity*

SecretariesSecretaries and office assistants are often essential to the success of just about any business. The more competent they are, the better the business runs. If you’ve ever had either a very competent or a very incompetent one, you know what I mean.

We see secretaries quite a lot in crime fiction too. Where would Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot be without his secretary Felicity Lemon? Where would Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason be without Della Street? And where would Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti be without Signorina Elettra Zorzi?

The thing about competent secretaries is that very often, they know a lot more about what goes on in a firm than you’d think. And that can make them very vulnerable. There are plenty of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Sheila Webb, who works for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in the town of Crowdean. One afternoon she is sent to Wilbraham Crescent, where her services have been specially requested. When she arrives at the house, she finds that there’s a dead man in the sitting room. Badly shaken, she rushes out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a special agent who’s in the area working on a case of his own. There are some odd things about this particular crime, so Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot and Lamb, together with DI Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle, are looking into what happened when there’s another murder. Now Sheila Webb is mixed up in much more than she thinks…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York City when Nick gets reluctantly drawn into a case. Businessman Claude Wynant seems to have disappeared, and his daughter Dorothy wants to track him down. At first, Nick is unwilling to get involved, but the next morning there’s a shocking new development. Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. There are several suspects, too, including Wynant himself. Even Nick falls under suspicion, since the Wynant family members, Wynant’s business associates and other suspects seem to use Nick and Nora’s home as a gathering place. In the end, Nick untangles the web of secrets and lies and finds out who killed Julia Wolf and why.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s  The Silence of the Rain begins with the death of Richard Carvalho, an executive at the mineral exploration company Planalto Minerações. His body is found in his car, apparently killed by a thief who stole his briefcase and wallet. Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police is called to the scene and begins the investigation. One of the people he wants to interview is Carvalho’s secretary Dona Rose Chaves Benevides. But that turns out to be much more difficult than you’d think. First she’s out sick; then she abruptly disappears. It’s now clear that this death is much more than a case of a robbery gone wrong.

Margaret Maron’s  One Coffee With is the first in her series featuring NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. In this novel, murder strikes Vanderlyn College’s Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college cafeteria to get coffee for the various faculty members with whom she works. She puts the tray of cups on the top of a filing cabinet and soon, various people come into the department office to get their coffee. Not long afterwards, deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be poisoning by potassium dichromate. As Harald and her team investigate, they learn that more than one person had a very good reason to poison the victim. Even Sandy herself is a suspect. At the very least, she’s now mixed up in a murder case, just when she was hoping to get her life settled.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s The Enigma of China, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. He is a rising cadre in the Party with a bright future. He’s also a very well-respected detective, with a reputation for being ethical. So the Party is eager to have him as a consultant when Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, apparently commits suicide. Zhou became the subject of a Party investigation when evidence that he was corrupt was spread on the Internet. He had been placed in extra-legal detention and was at a secure hotel when he apparently hanged himself. That explanation makes sense considering Zhou was a high-level official who was about to be severely punished. Chen comes under a great deal of pressure to sign off on the suicide explanation, but he isn’t quite convinced. As he investigates, Chen finds that his role as a cop comes up against the realities that he discovers, and he has to make some difficult choices. One of the people he interviews is Zhou’s former secretary Fang Fang. She had a very responsible position and could have been privy to quite a lot of information. Even if she knows nothing about her boss’ fate, she may very well be helpful. That’s especially true given that she was also, by all accounts, Zhou’s ‘little secretary,’ which implies that she did more than just make his appointments and manage his office. As Chen interacts with Fang, we see just how vulnerable this case makes her. The same powerful people who want this case handled in a certain way are just as interested in keeping Fang quiet…

And that’s the thing about being a secretary/assistant. You often get to know a lot about what goes where you work. So when there’s shady business or worse, you get mixed up in it, no matter how innocent you are (or aren’t). These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser’s A Secretary is Not a Toy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Donna Leon, Erle Stanley Gardner, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Margaret Maron, Qiu Xiaolong

Don’t Care If It’s Chinatown or on Riverside*

NewYorkCityIf you’ve ever been to New York City, then you know that it defies easy description. It’s a city with a long and rich history, and today, it’s a mix of so many cultures and different kinds of people that the word ‘diverse’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. What’s interesting about New York, too, is that you’ll find some of the wealthiest areas of the city just a few blocks from some of the poorest. It’s an intense, fascinating place, and there are plenty of people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. There are famous museums, top musical artists, Broadway shows, world-class restaurants, and lots more there. Oh, and Billy Joel was born there, too.

Ahem – right – back to New York City. It shouldn’t be surprising that lots of crime fiction is set there. It’s just a natural context for a murder mystery, especially if you consider the number of real-life famous murders that have occurred there. There’s a long list of authors who’ve set their novels or series in New York. Here’s just a small smattering.

Any dedicated crime fiction fan will be able to tell you that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series has a distinctive New York City setting. Although Wolfe does travel a few times, the vast majority of the books are set in Manhattan, where Wolfe has his famous brownstone home/office. His employee/business partner (sometimes it’s hard to tell, really) Archie Goodwin does the ‘legwork’ on Wolfe’s cases, and his travels take him all over New York. Through his eyes, we get to see many of New York’s different ‘faces,’ from ‘society’ homes and mansions to tenements, and just about everywhere in between. Want to explore Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin’s New York? Check out your options with the Wolfe Pack, the Official Nero Wolfe Society.

Fans of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that although he called his setting Isola, it’s a thinly disguised New York City. Beginning with Cop Killer, these novels focus on murders in all sorts of different New York City settings. And what’s especially interesting about this series is that it looks at crime among all socioeconomic classes, too. Because the series is enduring (it lasted from 1956 to 2005), we also get to see how the city changes through the decades, and how factors such as immigration, technology and so on have affected it.

Lawrence Block’s PI series featuring Matthew Scudder is also set in New York. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers, the series follows Scudder as he begins life as a PI after leaving the NYPD. Since most of Scudder’s contacts are informal, we also get a look at New York’s local restaurant and bar scene. I don’t mean necessarily trendy ‘popular’ places, although New York certainly has more than its share of them. I mean the smaller places that are popular with the local people. And New York City has plenty of those, too. Scudder has clients from several different socioeconomic strata too, so this series also gives readers a look at the different kinds of lives New Yorkers have.

Margaret Maron’s Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series is also set in New York City. Harald is a member of New York City’s Police Department, so she investigates all sorts of different kinds of cases. Beginning with One Coffee With, she takes on murders at university campuses, high-priced apartment buildings, attorneys’ offices and Greenwich Village ‘arty’ places, just to name a few.

Mary Higgins Clark has set some of her novels in New York City as well. For example, While My Pretty One Sleeps features murder in the world of fashion when a client of boutique owner Meeve Kearny is murdered. Loves Music, Loves to Dance follows jewelry designer Erin Scott and decorator Darcy Scott as they move to New York to pursue their careers. Then, they place personal ads in local newspapers to do some research for a TV producer friend who’s planning a feature on the topic. The research proves fatal when Erin disappears and is later found murdered. And in I’ll Be Seeing You, reporter Meghan Collins is following up on the story of the mugging of a US senator. When he’s rushed to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital, she goes along with other members of the press to learn of his condition. That’s when an ambulance team rushes in with a woman who’s just died – a woman who looks exactly like Meghan…

And then there’s S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Chin and Smith are both private investigators who sometimes partner up in their cases. Chin is a member of New York’s Chinese/Chinese-American community, so she is especially in demand for cases that require some knowledge of that culture. In China Trade for instance, she is hired to track down some rare and valuable Chinese porcelain items that were donated to a local museum. The trail leads to the Chinatown underworld of gangs and in this case, shady art dealers. While not every novel in this series features the Chinatown setting, it’s the area of New York that Chin knows best.  Readers who are interested in Chinatown can also read Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.

There are of course many more novels and series that take place in New York. Just a few examples are Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, Ellery Queen’s New York-set novels (most are, some are not), Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery/Jack Stapleton novels and several of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers/Oscar Piper novels. And those are only a few examples. I’ll bet you could think of many more.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, that’s my train. Time to head uptown…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Really? You were surprised? ;-)

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Filed under Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Henry Chang, Jeffery Deaver, Lawrence Block, Margaret Maron, Mary Higgins Clark, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, S.J. Rozan, Stuart Palmer

You Tried to Reconstruct the Crime Scene With a Handful of Clues*

ReconstructionPolice detectives and other sleuths use a lot of different strategies and techniques for solving cases. And of course, each case is a bit different and requires a different approach. One of the approaches detectives take is reconstructing the crime. By that I don’t mean just going to the crime scene. I mean replaying the events of a crime, sometimes with the suspects and witnesses reprising their roles. It’s a staple of classic and Golden Age crime fiction, but you even see it in some modern novels. 

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once that it’s possible to solve a crime by simply sitting in one’s chair and thinking. But he’s not averse to going to the scene of a crime and reconstructing the events of it. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one evening. In the Golden Age tradition, there are several suspects, each of whom had the motive and opportunity. But the most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who had a serious quarrel with Ackroyd over money, and who disappeared shortly after the murder. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent and wants to clear his name. So she asks Poirot to investigate. At one point, after learning that Flora went to her uncle’s study to say goodnight just before he was murdered, Poirot asks Flora and family butler Parker to replay that incident:

 

‘‘One moment,’ cried Poirot, raising his hand and seemingly very excited. ‘We must have everything in order. Just as it occurred. It is a little method of mine.’
‘A foreign custom, sir,’ said Parker. ‘Reconstruction of the crime they call it, do they not?’ He was quite imperturbable as he stood there politely waiting on Poirot’s orders.
‘Ah! he knows something, the good Parker,’ cried Poirot. ‘He has read of these things. Now, I beg you, let us have everything of the most exact. You came from the outer hall – so. Mademoiselle was – where?’
‘Here’ said Flora, taking up her stand just outside the study door.
‘Quite right, sir,’ said Parker.
‘I had just closed the door,’ continued Flora.
‘Yes, miss.’ agreed Parker. ‘Your hand was still on the handle as it is now.’
‘Then allez,’ said Poirot. ‘Play me the little comedy.’’

 

As we learn, Poirot has a very specific reason for wanting to reconstruct this scene. 

In Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy, journalist Nigel Bathgate is feeling restless one rainy evening and on impulse, visits a local religious group House of the Sacred Flame. While he’s there, he witnesses an unusual ceremony. At the height of it, one of the participants Cara Quayne suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison that’s been placed in a chalice used in the ceremony. The only likely suspects in the case are the other participants and their religious leader Jasper Garnette. Bathgate calls in his friend Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Alleyn puts the machinery of law in motion. One of the questions raised is how anyone could have poisoned the chalice from which the victim drank. So Alleyn has several of his people, including Inspector Fox and Bathgate, take the places of the worshipers to reconstruct the murder. That exercise shows Alleyn how the crime could have been committed without anyone seeing. And in the end, it helps him to figure out who would have wanted to kill the victim. 

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is in part the story of the murder of a postman Joseph Higgins. He accidentally breaks a leg and is taken to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime military use. During what’s supposed to be a routine operation, Higgins suddenly dies. At first his death is put down to tragic accident and Inspector Cockrill is assigned to handle the investigation and routine paperwork. But Cockrill isn’t satisfied that Higgins died accidentally, and Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. So Cockrill begins a more thorough investigation. Then another patient, also with a fracture, is scheduled for surgery. One of the medical staff Esther Sanson has gotten very attached to this particular patient and is worried about what will happen to him. Cockrill assures her that he’ll be attending the surgery so that he can see that all goes well. The surgery turns out to be very close to a complete reconstruction of Higgins’ murder, since this patient also nearly dies on the table. Cockrill is able to see exactly what happens in surgery and he uses that knowledge to find out who killed Higgins and why. 

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at a dinner dance hosted by powerful socialite Louise Robilotti. The not-very-hidden agenda is that the evening will provide an opportunity for some of the young women of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. It’s hoped that by mixing with members of the ‘better class,’ these women will learn how that class does things, and perhaps even meet young men. During the evening, one of the Grantham House guests tells Goodwin that another guest Faith Usher has brought cyanide with her and intends to use it to commit suicide. Later, Faith does in fact die of cyanide poisoning and everyone is convinced that she followed through on her threat. But Goodwin isn’t. So despite a great deal of pressure to let the case go, Goodwin and Nero Wolfe investigate. Part of that investigation is a reconstruction of the last few moments of Faith Usher’s life. In typical Wolfe style, he has several people who were there come to the famous brownstone, where things are laid out the way they were on the fatal evening. The reconstruction is very helpful in showing exactly how the victim was poisoned. 

Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force uses reconstruction of the crime in H.R.F. Keating”s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. He’s just been promoted to the rank of Inspector when he gets an odd assignment. Sir Rustom Engineer, head of the Crime Branch of the police force, asks Ghote to do him a personal favour. He’s had a letter from an old friend Robert Dawkins, whose wife Iris recently committed suicide. Dawkins wants to know why she would have taken her life, and Engineer asks Ghote to go to Mahableshwar and investigate. Ghote isn’t happy about leaving his wife Protima, who’s about to give birth to their first child, but he doesn’t feel he has a choice. So he travels from Bombay to Mahableshwar to look into the case. It’s not long before Ghote begins to suspect that Iris Dawkins was murdered. If she was, the question of course is who killed her? Finding the answer to that question is difficult, since no-one very much wants to cooperate with Ghote. But in the end he finds out the truth. And part of what leads him to the answer is a reconstruction of the crime. He goes to Dawkins’ home and quite literally walks through each step of the crime, taking different people’s roles as he goes. It’s a very interesting approach to finding out whodunit. 

And then there’s Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With, the first of her NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series. Harald and her assistant Detective Tilden are called to Vanderlyn College when the Art Department’s deputy department chair Riley Quinn is poisoned. Quinn had made his share of enemies in and out of the department, so there’s no lack of suspects. And part of the process of investigating this crime is looking into each suspect’s background and tracing each suspect’s movements. But that doesn’t completely answer the question of how the killer managed to poison Quinn. The poison was administered in a cup of coffee that department secretary Sandy Kepler brought from the cafeteria back to the department’s main office. That cup was among others that were left together within easy reach of a number of people. Because there were several people in the office at the time the poison was put into the coffee, Harald and Tilden decide to reconstruct the crime to see where everyone was and who could have put the poison into the coffee cup. That reconstruction makes it possible for Harald to see exactly how the deed was done. 

And that’s really the main purpose of reconstruction. Reenacting a crime can help the sleuth to see clearly how one or another person could commit a crime without being noticed. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, Sherlock Holmes fans), but hopefully they’ll help you reconstruct what I mean.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Stephen Bruton’s Dogs May Bark.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, H.R.F. Keating, Margaret Maron, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

I Can See Clearly Now*

The Big RevealIn many crime fiction novels there’s a point in the story where we learn who the criminal (usually the murderer) is. Of course, a lot of crime fiction fans try to figure it out from the very beginning, but there’s often a point where the killer is named. That point’s sometimes referred to as the big reveal. It’s a crucial point in a story too for a few reasons. The obvious one of course is that that’s where the reader learns the answer to a central question in the story. If that point in the novel doesn’t mesh with the rest of the story, or if the criminal isn’t believable, the reader can get pulled out of the novel and be left frustrated and disappointed. Another reason the big reveal is important is that the circumstances surrounding it can add to the suspense in a novel. That can keep the reader engaged.

In a lot (but certainly not all) of classic and Golden Age crime fiction, the sleuth gathers the suspects together and names the killer. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is particularly fond of showing off that way – even he admits that about himself. But Miss Marple has her own ‘big reveal’ moments too. In 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!)for instance, Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses the murder of an unknown woman while en route by train to St. Mary Mead. The only problem is that there is no evidence for what Mrs. McGillicuddy says that she saw. No body is discovered and no-one has reported a missing person who fits the description of the victim. So almost no-one is inclined to believe Mrs. McGillicuddy – except Miss Marple. She deduces that the body must be on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, home of the Crackenthorpe family, and with help from her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow, she finds out she’s right. When the body is discovered, the police get involved and all of the members of the Crackenthorpe family come under suspicion. At the end of the novel, Lucy arranges for Miss Marple and Mrs. McGillicuddy to come to tea at Rutherford Hall. That’s when Miss Marple catches the killer through a clever trick in front of the suspects. It works, too.

Margaret Maron’s Sigrid Harald uses a variation on this technique in One Coffee With. She and her assistant Detective Tilden are assigned to investigate the poisoning murder of Riley Quinn, deputy chair of the Art Department at New York’s Vanderlyn University. In the process of the investigation Harald and Tilden learn a lot about the inner workings of the department, including its rivalries and the cold reality of funding issues. It turns out that many of the department members had a motive for murder. So did some of the students. But bit by bit, Harald and Tilden find out who the killer is. Towards the end of the novel Harald makes an arrangement with another character and together they lure the killer out of hiding as the expression goes. That’s when the reader finds out for sure who murdered Quinn and why. Then Harald goes on to explain how the clues led her to the truth.

Of course, not all authors use that plot point of gathering a group of suspects together for the big reveal. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the murder of noted fashion designer Sheila Grey and of course his son Ellery gets involved too. The first most likely suspect is wealthy businessman Ashton McKell, with whom Grey’d been involved. When McKell is cleared of suspicion, his wife Lutetia becomes a suspect and then so does his son Dane. There are other suspects too. Grey left a cryptic clue though, and the killer has unwittingly left a ‘calling card.’ When Ellery discovers this ‘calling card,’ he’s able to identify the killer. In this novel we learn who the killer is as the Queens confront that person. That is, it’s not a dramatic reveal in front of a circle of stunned faces. Rather, it’s a more personal encounter.

That’s what happens in Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black too. In that novel, sixteen-year-old Catherine Ross is found murdered in a field not far from the home of local misfit Magnus Tait. Tait’s the most obvious suspect since he saw the girl on the day she was killed, and since he was implicated in the disappearance of a young girl several years earlier. But Inspector Jimmy Perez doesn’t think it’s that simple and he is proven right. To find Catherine’s killer, Perez has to look into all of the relationships among the residents of Ravenswick, Shetland, where Catherine lived. Bit by bit he uncovers the complex network of relationships and history. He also learns quite a lot about Catherine’s personality along the way. In the end he deduces who the killer is and confronts that person. And in keeping with the nature of this novel, that confrontation isn’t an overly-dramatic scene involving a car chase or gun battle. It has its own drama, but that drama is more psychological and that’s an effective fit with the novel.

Sometimes authors don’t use a big reveal as such. They may include a confrontation between sleuth and criminal but that’s not when the killer’s identity is revealed. Instead, those authors show how the sleuth finds out who the criminal is. In other words the reveal comes as the sleuth figures out what really happened.

We see that for instance in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City. Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team are called to the scene when the body of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg is discovered. At first there doesn’t seem much motive for murder. Holberg wasn’t wealthy and the place hadn’t been robbed, so money doesn’t seem to be involved. And Holberg didn’t have any obvious enemies either. But as the team gets to know more about the victim, we learn that Holberg was hiding a dark past. He’d been accused of several rapes, although he’d never been convicted. So it becomes quite possible that one of his victims chose to take revenge. Bit by bit Erlendur and team find out who the killer is and that’s how we learn that person’s identity. At the end of the novel, Erlendur confronts the killer with what he knows, so there is a scene between them. There’s a great deal of psychological tension in that scene too. But it’s not the stereotypical ‘big reveal.’

Some authors don’t really include a confrontation between sleuth and criminal in their reveal. That doesn’t mean the reveal can’t be highly effective though. For instance in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the suspicious death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at a local glass-blowing factory. Before his death Tassini had claimed that the glass-blowing industry was illegally dumping toxic waste. So there are several suspects including the local factory owners and their powerful supporters. Little by little Brunetti and Vianello find out who killed Tassini and that’s revealed in a more understated way. In that sense, there isn’t a big dramatic reveal. Brunetti never actually hauls the criminal away in handcuffs. But the reader knows who the killer is and at the very end of the novel, Brunetti gets the one piece of evidence he needs to make sure the killer faces consequences.

The big reveal can be dramatic or subtle. It can involve a violent confrontation or none at all. The best ones though have in common that they make sense given the characters and the kind of novel. Which big reveals have you liked best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Johnny Nash song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Arnaldur Indriðason, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Margaret Maron

In The Spotlight: Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Although Margaret Maron isn’t as well known as some of her fellow American authors, she’s contributed quite a lot to the genre. Her Judge Deborah Knott series has been very well regarded and she hasn’t confined herself to just that series. She’s also the author of several standalones and of the Sigrid Harald series, which was actually her first mystery series. Let’s take a look at Margaret Maron’s work today and turn the spotlight on the first in her Sigrid Harald series, One Coffee With.

Vanderlyn College is a member of New York’s City College of New York system and boasts among other things a successful Department of Art. Late one morning, the department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college’s cafeteria to bring back coffee for several department members. When she returns the department office becomes its usual hub of activity as students and faculty go in and out of it between classes. One by one the various faculty members take their coffee and return to their work. Shortly afterward deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be potassium dichromate poisoning. NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald and her assistant Detective Tildon are assigned to investigate the case and they begin to interview all of the students, faculty and staff members who were in or near the office at the time of the murder.

It’s not long before the detectives learn that Riley Quinn had made a number of enemies, some of whom he didn’t even know he had, so there are plenty of suspects. The first and most likely is Mike Szabo who works for the college’s Buildings and Grounds department. Szabo was heard to threaten Quinn just before his death and it’s later discovered that he had a good reason for hating the victim. Quinn’s widow Doris is set to inherit quite a lot at his death; unusually for an academic, Quinn had money to leave. And Doris Quinn has hardly been a faithful wife. There are also Quinn’s departmental colleagues, each of whom, as we discover, has a motive. And then there’s graduate student Harley Harris, who is convinced that the department has conspired to prevent him from graduating.

There is also the possibility that the coffee was never intended for Quinn in the first place, but was intended for Department Chair Oscar Nauman. So Harald and Tildon have to consider Nauman as not only a suspect but also an intended victim. Bit by bit the two detectives uncover the jealousies, politics and hidden secrets of the department. They also find out some secrets about Quinn’s life too and in the end, they are able to unravel the truth about who killed Riley Quinn and why.

This is an academic mystery, so we get a good look at college life before the modern age of technology (the book was published in 1981). Of course some things have changed radically but others (i.e. departmental rivalries, politics, and the scrambling for funding) have not. We also get a good look at the world of art from a few perspectives (no pun intended – promise). This department is sharply divided between those who create art and those who are art theorists, historians and critics. It’s a very interesting debate and as Harald and Tildon interview the witnesses and learn about the department we hear the different sides of that debate.

The mystery itself is reminiscent of the Golden Age in some ways. There’s a tray of coffees and at a busy time, someone slips poison into one of them and no-one actually sees it happen. The task of the police is to unravel the various stories and trace back the poisoned coffee to find out who actually tampered with it. Readers who enjoy that scenario – the intellectual puzzle – will be pleased. There’s an array of possible suspects, each with a motive, and the police unmask the killer and motive at the end. That said though, Maron ‘plays fair’ with the reader. Each suspect’s motive is believable and Harald and Tildon look closely at each. But there are clues all along for the observant reader. The solution comes down to timing and to what’s sometimes called ‘the psychological moment’ – that moment when everyone’s attention is diverted so that no-one really notices what’s actually happening.

The character of Sigrid Harald is also an element that runs through this novel. She is the daughter of a successful and very attractive photojournalist and a New York police officer who was murdered in the line of duty. Unlike her parents Harald is not particularly extroverted or classically attractive. Yet there is an appeal to her. Part of that appeal is that she isn’t emotionally crippled by her father’s murder. Yes it affects her, sometimes more than she admits, but she doesn’t let it obsess her. Harald is single and sometimes feels ‘on the outside looking in’ because she knows she’s not conventionally beautiful and outgoing. But at the same time she does her job without feeling particularly interested in a relationship.

It’s also interesting to note her attitude about being a woman in what was until that time very much a man’s job. In the early 1980’s it wasn’t nearly as common as it is now for women to be in positions of authority in the police, and certainly not as on-the-line detectives. But Harald doesn’t beat the proverbial feminist drum. In fact at one point a magazine reporter convinces an extremely reluctant Harald to consent to an interview. The one thing she most definitely does not want to do is answer questions about what it’s like for ‘us girls’ to ‘do a man’s work.’ To Harald, investigating is just simply doing her job. She’s not trying to prove anything; she’s just solving crimes.

Another interesting character is Vanderyln College’s Chair of the Department of Art Oscar Nauman. He’s capable, extremely knowledgeable and not overly effusive. He recognises the pragmatic value of getting along with the college’s administration but he’s really not a toady. He’s a little enigmatic but not annoyingly so and it’s believable that he and Harald would take an interest in each other. Nauman has a way of taking control of situations without being obviously manipulative, and we can see how at the same time as Harald is independent and wants to stay that way, she also finds herself somehow falling in with Nauman’s plans without really knowing how that happened. It’s an interesting relationship actually.

One Coffee With is a classic-style academic mystery set in a more modern era. It features some characters that anyone familiar with academe will recognise and offers an interesting intellectual ‘whodunit’ kind of puzzle. Oh, and one more note: readers who dislike violence and gore will be pleased. There isn’t much in this novel. The pace is measured but not slow, and the solution is believable although not obvious unless you’re paying close attention. But what’s your view? Have you read One Coffee With? What elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 8 October/Tuesday 9 October – The Sins of the Fathers – Lawrence Block

Monday 15 October/Tuesday 16 October – Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

Monday 22 October/Tuesday 23 October – Dying to Sin – Stephen Booth

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