Academic Affairs: A Poisoned Apple
I am a huge fan of the cozy mystery genre. When I’m not reading and reviewing books on behalf of the NABBW, I’m always deep into a cozy of my choice.
So I was delighted to be invited to dig into Academic Affairs: A Poisoned Apple, by Peter Likins, which is described as a “whimsical murder mystery novel.” (In other words, a “cozy.”) If you’re not familiar with the genre, think Jessica Fletcher. The “Murder She Wrote” series has all the genre requirements.
If you’re too young to remember Jessica and unfamiliar with the cozy murder mystery “formula,” it generally boils down to this:
- Someone (or possibly more than one person) living in a small community — a place where everyone knows each other — dies unexpectedly. The death usually happens in an unusual manner (such as eating a poisoned apple).
- The police and coroner are called in of course, but they don’t immediately rule the death a homicide. Though they will most likely consider it suspicious, they don’t initially rule out accidental death.
- There is always a highly likable townsperson – generally a woman – who is both a business owner (dog trainer, bakery owner, hair stylist, caterer, realtor, personal chef, etc.) who has legitimate reason to talk to a lot of people, and who also enjoys being somewhat of an amateur sleuth.
- This person is in a position to have the ear of the town’s medical examiner, detective or police officer, so is able to “pump” them for information, or gain access to documents and medical reports even while the case is actively under investigation.
- The people in charge of the official investigation usually don’t take the amateur sleuth’s efforts very seriously, and quite often request that she stand down and “let the police do their work.”
- Of course, the amateur sleuth ignores this request, often because she’s personally impacted or implicated in some manner, and may actually worry that she’s in danger.
- As the book closes, our cozy heroine correctly and triumphantly solves the case. But only after overcoming some personal peril and well before the police manage to figure things out.
Likins newest book, Academic Affairs fairly well fits my unofficial cozy formula: Specifically, the tale is set at Chickamin Christian College, a small religious academy located in tiny Spartan, Alabama, sometime in the 1930s. The murder weapon is a poisoned apple; one of many which the reader learns are daily gifted to our story’s “dead guy,” Executive Dean for Academic Affairs Jerry Pilkington, by Mary Belle Dawson, a young coed he tutors. (Of course there are rumors their relationship is more personal.)
The investigation falls to Sheriff Jake Muffet, assisted by his staff, who happen to be his children, Jackson and Bonnie. Unfortunately, our local constabulary doesn’t have the support of the mayor or his circle of friends, who include newspaper publisher B. C. Whiteside. Muffet immediately knows solving the case expeditiously is imperative to keeping his job come next election.
To bolster his deductive capabilities, Sheriff Muffet recruits the skills of spunky Katy O’Halleran, Assistant Professor of English and Journalism, who he conveniently finds shooting documentary photos of the Dean’s office when he arrives, the morning the murder is discovered. O’Halleran is not there in her collegiate role, but as aspiring reporter for Sparta’s only newspaper, the Spartan Spectator. As you might expect, Sheriff Jake threatens to confiscate the camera unless she volunteers the filmed evidence. She does, of course, as the opportunity to showcase her work is in Katy’s best interest.
And for the role of amateur sleuth, the book offers us Sally Brown, proprietor of Sally’s Salon; and her posse, the three “James girls” — Etta Mae, Elva Rae and Divinity. These women of color all work in keys parts of the community, but in the 1930’s era South, they are essentially invisible. Which means they have the opportunity to hear and see things. And since all three James women have college degrees, they’re actually better educated and more literate than either the sheriff or the mayor.
There are a few key differences between this book and the typical cozy novel. First, it’s extremely short and very tightly written. Almost terse. Most likely that’s because the author is trained to think analytically. Peter Likens initially earned degrees at Stanford and MIT and worked as a spacecraft development engineer at the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the first years of space exploration, when JPL was launching the first American earth satellites and space probes.
Later he joined the faculty at UCLA as a professor of Engineering and applied science. He has served as president of Lehigh University and was dean of engineering and provost of academic affairs at Columbia University! He is now President Emeritus of the University of Arizona.
Likins dedicates the book to his daughter Lora, saying he hopes to match her creative imagination with this whimsical murder mystery. It’s not his first foray into non-scientific writing, but it’s his first mystery.
The latter is a memoir. It tells the story of how he and his wife Patricia adopted six children in the 1960s, building a family beset by challenges that ultimately strengthened all their bonds. Some reviewers says that since this story includes threads of inter-racial adoption, mental illness, drug addiction, unwed pregnancy, and homosexuality, it’s is actually more that a family memoir—it’s a story of the American experience.
In closing, let’s return to Academic Affairs. Though it’s both terse and uncharacteristically brief for a book of the cozy genre, the tale does not disappoint. There’s more to the story than just following the evidence trail – the apple. There may actually be two murders.
It is entertaining to watch a crime being solved in an era prior to the acceptance of DNA evidence. Also prior to the use of cell phones, traffic cams, and the widespread use of fingerprint evidence. The identification of the actual killer will probably take the reader by surprise. But here’s one thing that is not unexpected: the posse at Sally’s Salon absolutely saves the day.