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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, November 25, 2001

Writers Conference Solved Need for Good Mysteries

A few weeks ago, I attended the Magna Cum Murder Mystery conference sponsored by Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. For three days, I rubbed elbows with some of my favorite mystery writers and observed other authors whom I had not yet read. Watching them in action made me want to read their books, too.

Deadstick by Terence Faherty (Worldwide, 1995).

Terence Faherty, a long-time resident of Indianapolis, was the mystery writer I most wanted to meet. I was standing in line to check into the conference hotel ahead of Jeanne Dams, one of my favorite "cozy" writers, when I looked around to see my Evansville friends Jan Steinmark and Bev Ray standing next to the man himself. It was a little surreal meeting these authors face to face.

I had read all the books in Faherty's Owen Keane series but the first one, "Deadstick." When I picked up and started reading an autographed copy at the conference, I was pleased to find out that it is one of the best in the series.

Faherty has been influenced by Raymond Chandler, and it definitely shows in this book. A complex mystery set near the beginning of WWII, the case involves two brothers, a girl they both loved, a plane crash and a murder.

Owen, a failed seminarian with low self-esteem, is a gifted amateur detective with a compulsion to solve mysteries, both real and metaphysical.

Crack Down by Val McDermid (Harper, 1994).

McDermid, a native of Scotland now living in Manchester, England, was the Guest of Honor at the conference. An impressive lady with short white hair who looked like she could hold her own in any barroom scuffle, she demonstrated a keen sense of humor and a literary intelligence second to no one.

Crack Down is the third novel in the Kate Brannigan series. Kate is a private investigator operating out of Manchester. She lives with Richard, a rock music critic and a gentle, naïve and unworldly character.

Poor Richard makes the mistake of becoming infatuated with a sports car the pair had come across in their investigative work.

Car thieves steal the car outside a shady nightclub, and when Richard comes across it again a few days later, he innocently drives it away without telling anyone.

The police stop him, only to find a large quantity of crack in the trunk and a piece of child pornography on the back seat.

If Kate can't solve the case, Richard faces a stiff prison sentence. McDermid's writing is tough, humorous and very British. The New York Times recently called her "the best that we have" in the mystery field.

Little Miss Evil by Lev Raphael (Walker, 2000).

Lev Raphael was the Conference's Master of Revels, complete with long hair and beard. Extremely bright and quick, he comes across more like a fun-loving academic than an author of crime fiction.

It turns out that he is an ex-academic who writes first-class mysteries set in the academic world. Raphael's series of novels features Nick Hoffman, a lowly Edith Wharton bibliographer and composition instructor who is trying desperately to get tenure at the backstabbing jungle called State University of Michigan.

In this witty novel, the SUM English Department is in even more turmoil than usual when Camille Cypriani, a cross between Anita Brookner and Judith Kranz, is hired to occupy an endowed chair at the university with an annual salary of $175, 000.

The English faculty is sputtering with jealousy, and, at the same time, Nick finds himself the target of threatening notes and threats.

The tension builds to a murder, of course, which Nick tends to attract like Jessica Fletcher herself. Lev Raphael is a real find and deserves to be more widely read.

The Body in the Transept by Jeanne M. Dams (Harper, 1996).

With very few exceptions, the authors at Magna Cum Murder were down-to-earth and unassuming individuals.

Jeanne Dams, another Indiana author we can all be proud of, was no exception. Just like her series character, Dorothy Martin, Dams' head was always adorned with a large and colorful hat, while her eyes peered skeptically out of large eyeglasses.

The Body in the Transept is the first in the Dorothy Martin series. We are introduced to Dorothy, an ex-Indiana resident and recent widow living in a small town in England.

After she finds the dead body of the cathedral's librarian, she meets her future husband, police constable Alan Nesbitt.

She knows that she can probably do a better job of solving the murder than he, because of her many contacts in the village, and she does just that.

The "cozy" mystery doesn't get much respect, but it remains probably the most popular type of mystery of all. It's as soothing as a cup of tea by the old fireplace.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.