In the Spotlight: Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels are as much ‘windows’ into a particular profession as they are anything else. Those sorts of novels can give the reader real insight into what it’s like to be a member of that profession. That’s the sort of novel Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

Another Margaret isn’t the first in in MacDonald’s Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig series, but it cycles back to the first, The Next Margaret, so it gives the reader a different sort of look at the series. Craig is a sessional lecturer who works mostly in Edmonton. This means that she doesn’t have the job security or other advantages that tenured faculty members have. But she does love campus life, and she’s been teaching English for twenty years, since she got her own M.A. She’s never quite managed to get a tenure-track position, so she makes ends meet by teaching for several area schools, depending on their needs for a given term.

As this story begins, Craig’s teaching courses for Grant McEwan University. Then, her friend, Denise Wolff, asks for her help with a major University of Alberta alumni reunion event to coincide with Homecoming Weekend. Craig agrees, and soon gets drawn into the process.

Then, Denise tells her a disturbing piece of news. A new novel, Seven Bird Saga, is about to be published. The author is Margaret Ahlers, the extremely reclusive writer on whom Craig did her master’s thesis twenty years earlier. And that’s what’s so upsetting about the news. Ahlers died years ago, and Craig has the feeling that this isn’t an innocent case of a manuscript stuck in the back of a filing cabinet for years.

As the big event gets closer, we learn how Craig first came to the university’s master’s program, and how she developed an interest in Ahlers’ work. At this point, the timeline follows Craig’s study of Ahlers’ writing, her work under Dr. Hilary Quinn, and her growing questions about Ahlers, who remains frustratingly difficult to find.

Then, we learn the truth about Margaret Ahlers, and the timeline returns to the present day, as the preparations for Homecoming go into full gear. As the time gets closer, Craig becomes more and more convinced that someone who may be attending the reunion knows more than it seems about Ahlers, and this could pose a danger to Craig, who has too many questions about this new book.

The weekend gets underway, and many alumni and former professors (as well as current faculty members) gather. And that’s when disaster strikes. In the end, we learn the truth about the new book, but not before there’s a murder.

This story takes place in an academic setting, and readers get a look at what it’s like to be a sessional instructor/lecturer. Different countries and universities have different names for such faculty, but whatever you call them, it’s not an easy life. There are no retirement accounts, health care plans, and so on. And the work can be catch-as-catch-can, depending on enrollment, number faculty sabbaticals, and the like.

Readers also get a look at campus politics. There’s a great deal of pressure to find a research niche and publish – regularly – within it. There’s also a lot of pressure to appeal to students, to get grading done quickly, and so on. Anyone who’s ever taught in higher education will find this familiar.

The setting is Edmonton and the Peace River area, and MacDonald places the reader there. As Craig goes to her classes, to the alumni events, and just around town, readers get a sense of what the city is like, and how it’s changed over the years. This is a distinctly Canadian novel.

Another important element in the novel is the timeline, which is actually two timelines. MacDonald integrated an earlier novel, The Next Margaret into this novel. The earlier novel tells the story of Craig’s pursuit of her degree, and her search for Margaret Ahlers. That story is ‘sandwiched’ within Another Margaret. Readers who prefer only one timeline will notice this. It’s worth noting, though, that it’s clear throughout the novel when given events are taking place.

The story is told from Craig’s point of view (first person, past tense), so readers learn quite a bit about her character. She is single, but has a long-term relationship with a local police detective, Steve Browning. Readers who are tired of angst-ridden sleuths who have dysfunctional relationships will be pleased to know that this is a strong one. Neither is perfect, but their bond is solid. Craig is hard-working and practical. She does get ‘burned out’ at times, but she’s smart, capable, and not the ‘damsel in distress’ that can put many readers off.

The solution to the mystery itself may require a little more suspension of disbelief than some readers might prefer. And, in its way, it’s quite sad. But readers who like to know whodunit and whydunit will be pleased that there aren’t any ‘loose ends.’

There is also wit woven throughout the novel. For instance, here’s what Craig says about catching up with other alumni:

‘Really, my need to know what people were doing usually limited itself to fictional characters.’

And there are several pointed observations about the academic life.

Another Margaret is really two stories in one. It tells one story within the context of telling the story of what happens years later. It features a strong past/present connection, a close look at the academic life ‘from the fringes,’ and features a protagonist whose curiosity about an author gets her into more than she imagined. But what’s your view? Have you read Another Margaret? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 25 September/Tuesday, 26 September – Among Thieves – John Clarkson

Monday, 2 October/Tuesday, 3 October – Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters

Monday, 9 October/Tuesday, 10 October –  Close Quarters – Michael Gilbert


Filed under Another Margaret, Janice MacDonald

19 responses to “In the Spotlight: Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret

  1. Your comments about the plot at the end make me think I may start elsewhere in the series as I like to keep things as plausible as possible in naturalistic mysteries – may be start at the beginning? Thanks Margot

  2. This does sound good Margot, a story with a strong past/present link with a Policeman who manages to hold down a relationship. I do like characters who have flaws and your indication is these two main protagonists may have a few, but not too many. And then there is the fact that this is a book about a book, something I find irresistible. My poor TBR – this is going on the wishlist!

    • I know just what you mean, Cleo, about the TBR! Mine is… well, let’s just keep it out of this discussion, shall we? I do think you might like this one, to be honest. As you say, the characters aren’t perfect, but they are solid, sympathetic characters, and their flaws make them human. And I like it, too, that when police sleuths can hold down relationships and be more or less functional. And then there’s that past/present thing… If you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. I’m curious what you mean by another novel is weaved into this one via an extra timeline. Is it a recap for readers who don’t read the books in order? Or is it the entire story repeated?

    • It’s not a repeat of the entire novel, word for word, Sue. But, it’s more than just a recap. I know that doesn’t answer your question in full detail. But I hope it helps you get a sense of what I mean.

  4. The plot sounds interesting though I’d be a bit worried about the credibility issues around the ending. But I like the idea of the good relationship and functional sleuths. And it sounds as if she’s got the academic setting accurately. I also like the title – it’s quite intriguing all by itself…

    • I liked that title very much, too, FictionFan. And, yes, the novel has a distinctive academic setting. As to the credibility? Each reader has a different definition of what ‘counts’ as not credible enough. I can say without spoiling the story that it doesn’t have anything like a paranormal solution, or anything that’s that ‘out there.’ If you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And you’re right; it’s refreshing that both sleuths in this case are functional.

  5. Col

    An interesting spotlight, Margot but probably not one for me to seek out thanks.

  6. Margot: I enjoyed the book and a chance to ask Janice some questions. I thought Another Margaret as complex a plot as any I have read in crime fiction.

    One of the areas of the plot that I found impressive was Janice’s creation of a series of plots for books that Ms. Ahlers had written and Randy was studying for her M.A.

    Readers looking for a challenging and interesting mystery should not be put off by the ending. I thought there was a twist too many but the rest of the book more than compensated.

    • I agree with you, Bill, about the plots for the Ahlers books. That certainly added to the novel. And, yes, the plot is complex and layered, and that’s something else about it that appeals. Folks, you can read the Q and A session that Bill had with Janice MacDonald right here. It’s a very interesting interview.

  7. I hadn’t heard of this author but of course the title of this book immediately caught my attention! And as I read your post I began to think it sounds a book that I’d enjoy – a book within in a book and a mystery with an academic setting – it made me think of Gaudy Night.

    • It is an interesting and layered story, Margaret, and I like the title, too. And you’re right; Gaudy Night has a strong academic setting, too, and a layered sort of mystery. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Janice MadDonald’s Another Margaret is in the spotlight on the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

  9. Margot, I enjoyed your review. The combination of academic and literary setting is appealing, especially the discovery of a suspicious manuscript, which I thought was true to life. However, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable reading two timelines and two stories rolled into one.

    • It’s a real challenge to pull off a story with two timelines and stories rolled into one, Prashant. For me, anyway, it was clear enough when everything was happening. But it takes a deft hand to do that well. As to the setting and context, literary and academic setting, especially together, are really appealing to me, too. I’m glad you enjoyed the analysis.

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