Death Without Tenure by Joanne Dobson

For SBD.

As I mentioned last week, Dobson’s Karen Pelletier mysteries are old favorites, and I thought the series had died a premature death but recently learned that a new book was published after a long hiatus.

Karen Pelletier is about to realize her dream.  After six years in the English Department at New England’s exclusive Enfield College, she is up for a tenured position.  But when her rival for the one available tenured spot is found dead from an overdose of Peyote buttons, Karen is first on the list of suspects.  Now a homicide cop with a grudge against Lieutenant Piotrowksi, the love of Karen’s life, is breathing down her neck.

On campus, political passions rage, inflamed by the politically-correct English Department chair and by the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Whiteness Studies.  Two of Karen’s favorite students are caught up in the furor.

Will Karen be able to survive the investigation, protect her students, and find a permanent niche in the world of academe, all without her beloved Charlie, now serving with the National Guard in Iraq?

As usual, the back blurb is over-the-top and exaggerated.  Passion, rage, survival, immediate suspicion?  Eh, not so much.  Although I’m not entirely certain the designation fits, this is much more a cozy mystery than a hard boiled crime novel.  

What did I think of the cover art?  It fits the content of the book.  One of the characters is a Native American narrative specialist; the office of the victim and its contents are described as being piles and piles of print outs and paper, so the stacked desk suits, too.  The text of the cover art is interesting to me, because the author’s name is in all caps above the title and the font is almost as large as the title’s font.  I would take that to mean that the art/marketing department is selling Dobson’s name/reputation/series as much as they are the individual book.  [What do you think? Yes? No?]

The book opens with Karen angsting over her tenure application package — from its contents to the box in which all the materials will be delivered to the Dean’s office.  Her anxiety increases tenfold when she learns that her department head (and tenure committee member) really wants Joe Lone Wolf, her competition, to get the sole tenured spot, despite the fact that he does not publish or attend conferences and has not actually finished his dissertation.  He gets rave reviews from students (Karen and readers learn why later) and the English chair believes that using his lectures in lieu of publication is suitable given the oral nature of much of Native American literature and storytelling.  Meanwhile, Karen’s estranged sister deposits their ailing mother on Karen unannounced, and Karen’s tenure box disappears from her office two days before it is due.  Karen’s bad luck worsens when she gets a call from the state police, asking her to come to Joe Lone Wolf’s home because he is dead.  Why Karen?  Because a student found the body and asked for Karen when the police questioned him.  But the detective on the case has an ax to grind with Charlie, Karen’s absent lover, and uses Karen as a convenient outlet for his ire.  I wouldn’t say that he twists the facts or misuses evidence, but he certainly doesn’t look far for any other potential suspects.

Feeling under the gun (and also forced to teach one of Lone Wolf’s classes until a replacement can be found), Karen sends out some feelers via Facebook and other online academic listserves, trying to see if anyone knew much about Lone Wolf, who had zero internet presence, even to the point of lacking a photo on the college’s home page for him.  Her inquiry garners an interesting response from an old colleague, and creates an ever-growing pool of people who had reason to want Lone Wolf punished, one way or another.

What did I think of the book?  I’m ambivalent, to be frank.  The peek into the very competitive world of academia, especially for tenured slots, was intriguing to an outsider.  And I enjoyed visiting Enfield College and Karen again.  But I struggled with the plausibility of the set up.  Would a talented teacher without a dissertation or any publication be considered for a tenured slot when there are other candidates who are multi-pubbed and also well-rated as an instructor?  While I grasped the thread of ethnophobia, establishment guilt, and reparation that was used through out (sometimes not so subtly), some of the subplots felt extraneous and not well integrated into the over-arching story.  

It wasn’t until I was finished reading that I realized this mystery is different from earlier Karen Pelletier mysteries in that no literary text is the subject of the mystery.  To the extent that a piece of writing is important to the plot, it is only revealed as the end of the book approaches and is not front and center as the plot progresses.

That all sounds negative, but I really did enjoy this book.  B for me, and a recommended if you like cozy mysteries.

Next book:  The Annotated Persuasion

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