Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book Review: Majoring in Murder by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

There are times when you want a prime rib dinner. There are times when you crave bistro food. And there are times when you just want meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Just as there is comfort food, there are comfort reads. After the intensity of Dan Simmons' "Flashback" and weeks reading "A Clash of Kings" (which I'll get back to now), I felt like something lighter, something softer, a book that I could cuddle up with and enjoy. For me that means a cozy mystery.

I was not disappointed by this book in the "Murder She Wrote" series. I loved the television series and, although I haven't read many of the tie-in books, this one was exactly what a cozy mystery should be. There are no recipes or knitting instructions. We don't have quirky characters a la Grandma Mazur. What we do have is a well-crafted mystery with multiple suspects, clues ably planted, and characters you can identify with.

In this one, Jessica Fletcher, retired English teacher, mystery writer, and incredibly nosy amateur sleuth, is invited to teach a class in mystery writing at Schoolman College in Indiana. While there, a colleague is killed during a tornado when the building he's in collapses on top of him. Jessica, of course, suspects foul play almost from the outset. When the sister of the victim arrives in town, bringing a letter from him where he says his life is in danger, Jessica is even more convinced. But, as usual, local law enforcement thinks that the two women have overactive imaginations and doesn't want to investigate.

Since Jessica is new to the campus, it's believable when we get to know the people at the college by her asking questions. Anyone who's familiar with Murder She Wrote knows that Jessica jumps right in and helps people she just met, even though there may be long-term friends and acquaintances who, in real life, would fulfill this role. And we know she always pokes her nose in places she doesn't belong. With these characteristics as a given, Jessica Fletcher is a very believable amateur sleuth.

After writing that, it has me trying to identify why a retired English teacher is a more believable amateur sleuth than, say, the owner of a bookstore or a baker or a knitter. I suppose there's no reason inherent in the occupation of the amateur sleuth. I think the problem with all the craft and cooking mysteries is that the author (and probably their readers, since the books are popular) is just as interested, if not more so, in the crafts or recipes as they are in solving the murder. A troubled romantic relationship seems to be a required subplot as well. And, of course, the obligatory quirky character.

In "Majoring in Murder", the focus is on solving the crime. Classroom lectures on how to write a mystery don't overwhelm the plot. Jessica doesn't meet a handsome, widowed professor who tries to woo her. And we don't have anyone who brings a juggling baboon to class.

Donald Bain knows how to write a traditional mystery with all the elements of a good whodunnit. I'll definitely be reading more in this series.
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