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