Written by Mary Angela — One perenially popular subsection of the American cosy crime fiction bookshelf is the campus novel. This may be because so many readers have an association with college or plan to study at some point. There’s plenty of potential for a good mystery on campus, with a relatively enclosed setting where academic rivalries run high and promotion possibilities are few and far between.
The author Mary Angela is a college professor and makes full use of her knowledge of departmental politics and college funding concerns in her second novel in the series featuring English Lit professor turned amateur detective, Emmeline Prather. The action takes place at a small college in the fictional town of Copper Bluff in South Dakota, and the changes of season are lovingly described. The actual murder, however, takes place off campus, as a group of students and lecturers embark upon a trip to Paris for their spring break. The victim is Molly Jaspers, who is bold, beautiful and passionate about conservation. You can see how this controversial and combative environmental historian, renowned for her ‘smug certainty’ and for fighting against proposed oil pipelines in the Midwest, might have made enemies.
At first, it seems like an unfortunate accident when she suddenly dies of an allergic reaction to nuts soon after take-off, but is it possible that anyone would hate her enough to engineer her demise? She may have had a bit of a knack for putting people’s backs up, but surely all of the other faculty members and students on the trip are reasonable individuals who could not possibly want to kill anyone over mere hurt feelings.
As the group is forced to stay in Minneapolis for several days to help the police with their enquiries, Emmeline starts to wonder just how well she knows her colleagues. She is quite attracted to the handsome French professor and trip organiser Andre Duman and doesn’t want to believe that he is involved in the death, but she couldn’t help witnessing a rather bitter exchange of words between him and the victim shortly before they got on the plane. And what about that strange lady who seemed to be following her in the airport lounge – could it have been a case of mistaken identity?
The author takes some time to set the scene and establish the characters before the actual murder takes place. This slower pacing is very typical of cosy mysteries, which often also rely on longer story arches for the main characters that develop over several books. There certainly seems to be a development in the relationship between Emmeline and the American literature professor Lenny, which hints at more than solid friendship in the future. There are other staple features from the cosy crime world here too: the single, attractive and relatively young amateur detective, the supportive male partner, a much-loved cat and a bit of superstition surrounding the number 13. Much of the detection happens through conversation and subtle observation, which makes this more plausible than in some cases, where the main protagonist endangers herself recklessly. This does mean, however, that there are fewer nail-biting moments as we near the final reveal, which is perhaps not quite as original as you’d hope for.
In spite of these reservations, Passport to Murder is an intelligent contemporary cosy which isn’t overly saccharine and should appeal to fans of the genre who like an amateur detective who approaches mysteries through the power of the intellect rather than through non-stop action.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars