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Those who work in a college will well understand the temptation to murder one's colleagues and administrators. Fights are occasionally bitter and protracted: people hold onto strict ideological convictions and are often extremely territorial, making attempts to create innovation especially difficult. Some departments are more prone to dispute than others, and English departments have the reputation for the bitterest battles. So murder mysteries set on campus are full of potential, and Death without Tenure is a satisfying contribution to the genre.
Karen Pelletier is up for tenure at an elite New England liberal arts college, but the administration has said that her department can only give tenure to one person that year, and she is competing with her colleague Joe Lone Wolf. She has published two books and plenty of articles, while he has published nothing, so she should be the clear favorite. But he is being favored because he is Native American. She is frustrated at the politics that threaten all her hard work, but she does not want to resort to killing to get her way. She is not pleased when her rival is murdered, and she becomes worried when she becomes the main suspect. So she has to find out who really did it.
Author Joanne Dobson has had jobs at colleges, and so she has some sense for what it is like to be a professor. She includes little about academic theory (there's a quick paragraph on whiteness theory, and some discussion of the role of race in academic politics), and she does mention some about the internal processes of colleges with the baroque committee structures and long running battles that go on between different factions.. I would have liked more of that, to more dramatic or humorous effect.
The dramatic revelation about Joe Lone Wolf is telegraphed from early on in the story, and the portrayal of classroom scenes don't ring particularly true, especially since her main character gives her students so much freedom -- she sees one student checking his email on his laptop and yet she does not tell him to close the computer. Pelletier is, like author Dobson, a researcher on Emily Dickinson, yet she is also a progressive theorist who wants to overhaul the canon. The liveliest discussion comes from a class on American Studies where Pelletier pushes her students on what counts as American literature. Pelletier gets very invested in her students, especially two who also come under suspicion for the murder. She never doubts them though: one is a Muslim who wears a traditional hajib and the other is a working-class student on scholarship, and they have her full sympathy.
While the different elements in the mystery do always not hang together so well, and the characterization is on the formulaic side, it all works well enough. Dobson does manage to include an impressive number of different elements and subplots, and she keeps the pace swift throughout the work. The unabridged audiobook, performed by Christine Williams, is done well.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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