Sunday, July 15, 2018

Murder is Academic: Christine Poulson

After reading Christine Poulson's most recent mysteries (Deep Water and Cold, Cold Heart) I wanted to go back and read her first series. Murder is Academic is the first book in the Cambridge Mystery series, starring Cassandra James.

In this debut novel, Poulson has set her story at St. Etheldreda's College at Cambridge. Cassandra is a professor of English, and she finds the head of her department drowned in a pool, surrounded by exam papers.

From the prologue...
It’s hard now to remember what first struck me as not being quite right, but I think it was the garden sprinkler. 
... As I walked down the path I heard the gentle swishing without being able quite to identify what the sound was. Then I turned the corner of the house and saw the water falling in slow rhythmic veils. The ground underneath the sprinkler was sodden, the grass almost submerged. It must have been on for hours, all night probably. You’d have to know Margaret as well as I did to understand why that was odd. She ran a tight ship in college and it was the same at home. I’d often thought it was just as well that Malcolm was fanatically tidy, too. They would have driven each other mad otherwise
Margaret Joplin's death appears to be accidental, but later more and more strange and unsettling developments point to the possibility of murder.

Soon Cassandra's boss asks her to take over the position as the Head of the English department. And with that new position, she has the stress of pushing not only herself but all  members of the small department to complete some research to satisfy a Research Assessment Exercise that is coming up.

One of the things that Christine Poulson does really well is setting and atmosphere. That is true in her two most recent books, one set in Ely in Cambridgeshire, in the world of pharmaceutical research; one set partially at a research station in the Antarctic. In Murder is Academic, in addition to the college setting, we have plagiarism, séances, the pressures to publish research. And you will notice that research is a prominent theme in all of these.

And on top of that, she creates characters that I care about. Cassandra is shaken up by the death of her friend and colleague. She is in a tentative romantic relationship with Stephen, an attorney, and she doesn't know how  far she  wants that to progress. Stephen; the department's office assistant, Cathy; the various quirky academics in the department -- all of those characters felt real and believable to me.

The plot is intricate, but with the setting in academia, among scholars and book lovers, I enjoyed the twists and turns that it takes.  I had no complaints. And I loved the ending.

The UK title of this book is Dead Letters.  I have the 2nd book in the series, Stage Fright, on order.

See also these posts at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., Clothes in Books, and I Prefer Reading.


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2004 (orig. pub. 2002)
Length:       240 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Cassandra James, #1
Setting:      Cambridge
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.


Kay said...

I'm glad to hear about this book! I really enjoyed this author's book set in Antarctica and also have her other more recent book with the pharmaceutical angle. Look forward to checking this older series out as well.

Anonymous said...

Oh, isn't this a great book, Tracy? I'm so glad you enjoyed it as much as you did. And Poulson really is a skilled writer. I recommend the rest of the Cassandra James series, too.

Clothes In Books said...

Count me in as another fan - I think this is a marvellous book. I love the academic setting, and the very real characters, and the women's POV.

TracyK said...

I think you would like it, Kay. I am glad there are two more in this series for me to read.

TracyK said...

Yes, Margot, I am glad I read this book and am looking forward to the next one.

TracyK said...

Yes, it all works well together, Moira. And you are right about the women's point of view, that is always nice in a novel.

Christine said...

What a lovely review, Tracy! I am so glad that you liked it.

TracyK said...

It is a lovely book, Christine, and it was a pleasure to read.

col2910 said...

Glad you enjoyed this one Tracy but I'll stick with the one I have from the author before stocking up on anything else.

TracyK said...

Sounds like a plan, Col. I am sure you will enjoy it.