Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book Review: Death Without Tenure by Joanne Dobson

I read and enjoyed several of Dobson's Karen Pelletier books a few years ago and was glad when my search for a new cozy led me to one I'd somehow missed, Death Without Tenure, published in 2010. Of course I put it on hold, and of course I started it right away when it arrived.

It was disappointing. Oh, I finished it, albeit in a quick, skimmy sort of way, but Death Without Tenure would never have made me look for more books by Dobson the way Quieter Than Sleep or Cold and Pure and Very Dead, or any of the others did.

The big problem is I never really believed any of the dangers Pelletier was supposedly in. Problem one: For some reason, there is only one tenure position available at Enfield, and Pelletier, just up for tenure, is in danger of losing out to Joe Lone Wolf, an American Indian who has never even finished his dissertation but who is being favored for reasons of political correctness. Problem two: Lone Wolf turns up dead, and Karen evidently has a good motive for killing him; besides, the officer in charge of the investigation hates Pelletier's fiance and wants her to be guilty.

The thing is, for either threat to be credible, everyone involved has to have checked their brains in at the doors. Yes colleges take affirmative action seriously, but I couldn't believe every single one of the people involved in the process would overlook the bulk of tenure requirements. Nor, once some of the circumstances of Lone Wolf's hiring became apparent, could I quite believe them; apparently, no one conducted even the most rudimentary background check on the man they were hiring. People can be idiots, but this required too much stupidity--and the absence of good old-fashioned curiosity--on the part of too many people.

The same held true of the investigation. For Pelletier to be in real danger, the investigator had to be someone the courts would creditably believe. His actions were over-the-top, and his fellow officers so clearly did not like or credit him, that that fell through. Really, anyone who wasn't Pelletier or her friend, was completely inane, which perversely made Pelletier herself far less likeable.

Too, Dobson handles the inter-cultural and inter-racial dilemmas that form the backbone of this book less than deftly. Yes, inter-cultural matters can be difficult, and institutionalized attempts to handle them can create a maze of conflicting dictates. To Dobson's credit, Pelletier herself doesn't come off as a shining example of perpetually correct cultural reading, but the tone of this book is often condescending, at best. Fully analyzing the maze in Death Without Tenure is, mercifully for this reviewer, quite impossible without heavy spoilers, but there are some major letdowns in Dobson's handling of the Lone Wolf scenario. I almost think Dobson wanted to address the issue and slapped it into a Pelletier mystery when what she really wanted was something much longer and more complicated. At least, she needed something longer and more complicated to adequately handle the number of questions she raised.

Other matters were also disappointing: Pelletier's sister brings her mother over to stay for a few weeks. This had some promise because the relationship between the women has been fraught for years. It's even more poignant because their mother is now fuzzy-minded (exact cause unclear), and needs constant care. The trouble is, other than one or two quick bonding moments, the ailing-mother subplot gets reduced to "I left Mom with (insert friend's name) while I taught/investigated/graded." Pelletier has some seriously good friends.

Also, I believe she re-used a motive, this time around, which is a pity.

The other books in the Karen Pelletier series--the ones I did enjoy, enough that I'll still read the next mystery, whenever it comes out.

Quieter Than Sleep: A Modern Mystery of Emily Dickinson
The Northbury Papers
The Raven and the Nightingale: A Modern Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe
Cold and Pure and Very Dead
The Maltese Manuscript

So, what did you think? Feel free to use spoilers in the comments!

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