Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something intriguing about an old, long-buried crime that can be very appealing. When that crime is connected to modern-day events, the appeal can be even greater. Let’s take a closer look at a crime novel that uses that plot point and turn today’s spotlight on Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Said, the first of her Professor Simon Shaw mysteries.
Shaw is a Pulitzer prize winning historian who could have had his choice of academic employers. He’s chosen Kenan College, in North Carolina, because he prefers a quiet life and, honestly, couldn’t imagine living anywhere but in the American South, where he was born and raised. Life changes dramatically for him when Sergeant Otis Gates of the Raleigh Police Department asks for his help with a strange case. Archaeologist David Morgan (who is a friend of Shaw’s) has been excavating the centuries-old Bloodworth property, part of which has been deeded to Kenan College. In the process, he’s discovered a long-buried body, and the police want Shaw’s help to determine who it might be.
With a limited staff and budget, Gates doesn’t have clearance to pursue an investigation as old as this one with all of his resources. Still, he’s interested, and he knows that Shaw is an expert on Southern history in general and is thoroughly familiar with the history of the Bloodworth family. So he and prosecuting attorney Julia McGloughlan are hoping that Shaw can assist them.
Shaw is, of course, very interested indeed, so despite some reluctance to identify the remains (he’s not accustomed to dead bodies), he agrees to see what he can do. It doesn’t take long for him to identify the remains as belonging to nineteen-year-old Anne Bloodworth, who disappeared in 1926. Records of the time indicate that a massive search was conducted, but she was never found. Now it’s clear that someone shot her in the back of the head and hid the body.
Shaw begins to dig a little deeper into the case, but it’s soon clear that someone in the present day does not want him to get answers. Bit by bit though, and despite two attempts on his life, Shaw finally puts the pieces of the puzzle together. And with Gates’ help, he’s able to find out who is so determined to keep the truth about Anne Bloodworth’s death a secret.
Because of Shaw’s profession, he pursues this investigation as any historian would, using historians’ tools. He consults records of the time, uses primary sources and in other ways treats this as if it were a research investigation. So readers get the chance to see how historians go about their work. That said, though, Shaw is also interested in the human side of this case. Anne Bloodworth was a real person, with a real life and death. And it’s that aspect of the whole thing that keeps him most intrigued.
Shaw is also an academician with a position at a demanding and reputable institution. So there’s also plenty of academic context. Shaw works with students, attends faculty meetings and the like. There’s a look, too, at the sometimes-vicious politics of academia. For example, in one plot thread, Shaw is embroiled in a departmental conflict when he assigns a poor senior thesis grade to Bobby Hinton. As it happens, Hinton is the prize student of Shaw’s rival Alex Andrus, and Andrus decides to use the occasion to cause as much trouble as he can for Shaw. And there’s a scene in which Shaw encounters Rufus Young, the college’s public-relations officer. Here is Young’s reaction to the discovery of the body:
‘Thank you, God…My secretary came running into my office, yelling about a dead woman. I thought a student had been murdered. Aged me twenty years right then. But’s it’s just an old corpse – really old…Thank goodness I had enough time to explain everything to the TV people before they slapped it on the noon news…Let me know if there’s a human-interest angle to this. We could send out a press release.’
These things do happen in real life, and readers interested in what can go on behind the scenes in US institutions will be pleased.
The story is told from Shaw’s perspective (‘though not in the first person), so we learn quite a bit about his character. He’s happy to live and work in the South, but his mother’s family is from New York City, and that’s left its mark on him, too. He’s recovering from divorce after his wife Tessa left him, so he’s had a difficult time. In fact, as the story begins, he’s just returning to a more or less regular work schedule. In some ways, he’s fragile, but he’s not the stereotypical demon-haunted sleuth who can’t interact functionally. In fact, as the story evolves he and Julia McGloughlin develop an interest in each other.
The story takes place in the American South, and Shaber makes that clear. Southern lifestyle and culture are woven into the story. Summer starts at the end of May and gets very hot and humid. And there’s the food:
‘..the buffet…was loaded with the perennial foods of southern social functions – shrimp, ham biscuits, chicken salad, baked Brie and chutney, fresh strawberries to dip in chocolate, and pecan tartlets.’
This isn’t ‘Southern noir,’ nor is it really a light, ‘frothy’ mystery. It is a distinctly Southern academic mystery, you might say. Although the story isn’t ‘frothy,’ it’s also not overly bleak. And readers who dislike a lot of brutal violence will be pleased that the violence in this novel isn’t gory.
There is suspense in the novel, but readers who prefer a thriller-like pace and lots of danger will notice that there’s really not much of that here. Rather, the story unfolds as the truth about Anne Bloodworth becomes clear. And part of the suspense is what you might call academic suspense; it comes from Shaw’s search for answers about the long-ago crime.
The solution to Ann Bloodworth’s murder is very sad; and, although Shaw has a certain amount of intellectual satisfaction from knowing the truth, it’s clear that it doesn’t make things any better. And the other half of the mystery – who is trying to kill Shaw and why – isn’t really light and happy, either. Still, the story does have hope. Shaw, for instance, starts to pick up his life and re-enter the world. And it’s clear that life at Kenan will go on.
Simon Said is a distinctly Southern academic mystery that connects a long-ago murder with current happenings. It features a professor who really wants some peace and quiet, and who gets anything but that; and it offers a look at a contemporary college department. But what’s your view? Have you read Simon Said? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 29 June/Tuesday 30 June – Call For the Dead – John le Carré
Monday 6 July/Tuesday 7 July – The Cry – Helen Fitzgerald
Monday 13 July/Tuesday 14 July – The Intruder – Håkan Östlundh