The Return of a Literary Sleuth: DEATH WITHOUT TENURE

This novel is the seventh in a mystery series focused on an English professor turned amateur sleuth, written by Joanne Dobson, herself a noted English professor and literary scholar. The series began with Quieter Than Sleep, Dr. Dobson’s debut novel featuring her heroine, Professor Karen Pelletier, a woman from the wrong side of the tracks who had fought hard to work her way to a position in a prestigious private university. Karen is a likable, down-to-earth, motherly figure that the reader can easily get behind in this first-person “cozy” (meaning a mystery novel featuring an amateur detective that shies away from graphic violence).

I had found the Karen Pelletier series quite by accident, picking up the first in the series at a used book sale because it promised to be ‘a mystery of Emily Dickinson’; I quickly fell in love with the series, its heroine, the grumpy policeman love interest, the charming characters and even the sometimes stuffy fictional Enfield College. Each ensuing novel seemed only to get better, though the sixth definitely left something to be desired – but I’ll get to that in another post.

Dobson returned to form with her seventh in the series. Our beloved Prof. Pelletier is up for tenure at Enfield College while being left to face the stress of the matter alone, with her daughter backpacking through Asia and her love interest, the oddly charming grump Lietenant Piotrowski, away serving with the National Guard in the Middle East. This sets the tone for what is missing from this novel to a grand degree – the likable friends, students and colleagues that had filled the series with their happy presence from the first in the series are scant, a big change from the usual format of the novel.

Also missing, to my great disappointment, is the academic aspect that had speckled the Karen Pelletier novels from the very beginning. From Emily Dickinson to Edgar Allan Poe, to a fictional roman à clef that mirrored the real-life Peyton Place, Dr. Dobson’s novels have always had an accompanying literary mystery that went hand-in-hand with the modern murder the crafty English professor heroine was trying to solve. Not so with the latest entry in the series, which focuses solely on the murder at hand.

That being said, Dr. Dobson’s mystery is still a step above many others in the “cozy” genre, touching on class, gender and religious divisions among her students, the Enfield staff and even her own family while spinning a tale of secrecy and murder. While I’d love to see more of Karen’s “old friends” in the next in the series, even if Dr. Dobson continues on course with her current style, it will be worth the read.

Title: Death Without Tenure
Author: Joanne Dobson
Length: 240 pages
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: January 1, 2010

CHECK PLUS: Return to format
CHECK MINUS: Lack of favorite characters; no literary mystery

Where Spirits Tread in LOST ECHOES


There is an ageless quality to the beginning of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, Lost Echoes. The opening to the main narrative – which arrives only after a newspaper clipping and a brief retrospective thought from the novel’s lead character – has a quiet sense of timelessness that could lead a reader to believe that this story could be taking place at any time in the latter half of the 20th century. An ill child awakens from a fevered sleep and wanders through a quiet house in the dark, reveling in his innocence by watching drive-in cartoons through his living room windows, parents all the while unaware. The sweetness of this picturesque scene is soon stripped away, when this single incident leads to a new talent that will haunt this child, young Harry, for much of his life.

The idea is fairly simple: the story of a young man, who, as a result of this childhood illness, sees and hears what is not there. Or, rather, what once was there, but has long since lapsed into the forgotten memories of countless villains and their hapless victims. Where Lost Echoes differs from a bevy of other paranormal thrillers is that the focus is not on the hero learning to use his gift to save the day, but rather learning to cope and bear the weight of knowing, seeing and feeling what others have left behind.

The novel is broken into three basic components, all centered around the story’s major player, Harry: a battle against the self, a battle against alcoholism and a twisted little mystery that draws both together. These major components of the story arc are oddly segregated, with the mystery crime-drama aspect relegated to the last and least important position. While the mystery of an accidental suicide that could be a murder, wrapped in the perfumed cloud of a returned childhood crush, is intriguing, it plays only  a supporting role to the real drama of the traffic hero Harry’s battle with his alcoholism and the terrifying visions – the title lost echoes – that come to him carried on waves of seemingly harmless sound.

This is in itself an intriguing idea, bring realism to the idea of a human being plagued by haunting visions of the past. Visionaries, psychics and mediums are a dime a dozen in fiction of a paranormal bend, but rarely do they possess such depth and reality. Lansdale presents Harry as sympathetic figure, plagued by visions he does not want and cannot stop. He is no sage mystic, using his supposed sight when and if he feels it necessary; he is just a tired, overwrought kid, attacked daily by a barrage of horrible images, vestiges of the inhumanity man wreaks upon himself and others. The evil med do, the author seems to subtly remind, can never truly die away, and while most can forget it with the passing of time, there are some, like Harry, who can never ignore it. He must deal with everything the rest of us leave behind; all of our fears, our horrors and our hates, invading the life and mind of the young man.

Unable to escape his gift – or, rather, curse, as Harry himself seems to see it – he draws himself into an obsessive compulsive cocoon of padded walls, planned ‘sage routes’ and avoidance. Anything he cannot control, Harry drowns in a flood of liquor, numbing his senses and halting the flow of the echoes that torment him. It is only after meeting a fellow barroom regular – an older man, perhaps representing the only future Harry will have if he continues on his self-destructive ‘safe’ path – and an unscheduled deviation from his normal routine that Harry begins to believe that there must be a better way. Enter Tad, a middle-aged martial arts master gone to seed, who drinks a nightly tribute to his own sad memories, a startling contrast to young Harry, who instead uses the alcohol to blot out and numb away everyone else’s lingering echoes. Together, the two embark on a quest to regain their control – find their centers – over their own lives.

Lansdale creates the world through Harry’s eyes – or, better, his ears; readers find the idyllic quiet of what seems to be modern day small town perfection shattered by the silent reverberating screams left only for Harry to see. Hidden here, and perhaps everywhere, are the dirty little secrets and softly spoken lies that are the underbelly of even the happiest of settings.

Title: Lost Echoes
Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Length: 341 Pages
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication Date: February 2007

CHECK PLUS: Clever plot, interesting characters
CHECK MINUS: At times tedious