Murder Gets A Degree by Theodora Wender

Murder Gets A DegreeMurder Gets A Degree was the second of two crime novels penned under a pseudonym by the classicist scholar Dorothea Wender and published in 1986. This book, like its predecessor Knight Must Fall, features the detective pairing of Turnbull College English professor Glad Gold and her Police Chief lover, Alden Chase.

Adah Storm is an aged and highly eccentric woman who lives with her twelve cats in a historic home on the edge of the Turnbull campus. Her odd outbursts and disheveled appearance have led some to speculate that she might be a witch.

When a town meeting is interrupted with the news that she has been burned to death in her home, Police Chief Alden Chase quickly comes up with a list of possible suspects that includes a religious zealot who lived next door, two men who were interested in acquiring her property and the visiting professor from France with a fascination in the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Knowing his girlfriend’s fondness for a good mystery, he asks Glad if she will help him informally interview some of those suspects…

I stumbled upon this book earlier this week in the mystery stacks of a branch of 2nd and Charles and, drawn in by the tag line on the front and the blurb’s promise of witch covens and ‘an archeologist who digs erotic encounters’, I felt it was worth a gamble for the price of just 75 cents. With Halloween just around the corner I closed the curtains, turned down the lights and settled in to see whether this title would be a trick or a treat. Unfortunately I would have to say that it is closer to the former than the latter.

The issue is chiefly one of tone. The book summons up plenty of Halloween atmosphere early on and plays around with some supernatural elements but it doesn’t seem to be clear on whether these elements are there to be comedic or something that should be treated seriously by the reader. This is a shame because that atmosphere gives the early parts of the book a lot of personality but it left me hoping that those themes would carry throughout the novel.

The other significant issue is the length of the book. The entire story has to unfold in just 150 pages which allows little time for diversions. One of the compromises made to accomplish this is we get to spend relatively little time with our group of suspects and some interviews happen without the reader being present. While I didn’t feel that was unfair as there was little information discovered in those sessions, it did artificially narrow the slate of suspects.

With regards our two heroes, I am less willing to leap to judgment as I have not read the book that introduces them. I am dubious whether reading how they got together would make me feel more invested in their relationship in the sequel and a little warmer towards them but I do have to acknowledge that the author clearly intended for this to build on their earlier efforts.

The secondary characters are more successful, if only because they make for a colorful group. Several are quite wonderfully over the top and I felt a little disappointed that they weren’t used more extensively throughout the narrative. My favorite of these was the Cthulu scholar who possesses some interesting beliefs about Lovecraft’s writings.

While they were entertaining, they were less impressive when viewed as a group of suspects. Too many of them had poor or close to inexplicable motives. I can’t go further without spoiling the identity of the murderer though I will say that the solution disappointed me in its simplicity, both in terms of its mechanics and lack of personality. I did appreciate the cleverness of one of the most important clues that leads to the denouement.

Still, in spite of these many faults and writing choices that I would take issue with, Murder Gets A Degree is a pretty entertaining book and an easy read. I doubt I will seek out Knight Must Fall off the back of this but if I ever spot a copy in a thrift store for less than a dollar I might be willing to take a chance on it…

Do you have a favorite mystery set at Halloween or Thanksgiving?

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