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