In Murdering Americans (ISBN 1-59058-413-9, 2007, $24.95), Ruth Dudley Edwards offers another mystery-comedy featuring the Baroness Troutbeck, a member of the House of Lords and Mistress of St. Martha’s College in Cambridge. In this novel the baroness, called Jack by her friends, is invited as a guest lecturer to the United States to the fictional Freeman State University. The baroness arrives, and after many battles, verbal and physical, rescues the university from corrupt administrators, solves several murders, and issues flaming critiques of American food, customs, and political correctness. Here she describes a forum at which she spoke and the near-riot that followed her remarks:
“Get on with it, Jack. What questions did the students ask you?”
“What I thought about diversity studies.”
“What you might expect. I said that women’s studies, black studies, queer studies and all the rest of diversity studies were bogus disciplines designed by fight-rate academics to politicize the humanities and institutionalize a complex system of apartheid in universities. Whenever anything is called studies, I pointed out, there’s very little study involved.”
Edwards has hit on a fine idea in creating a series of novels around Baroness Troutbeck, a blunt-spoken, bisexual, boozing atheist turned loose on all the absurd ideas of the times in which we live. Such a character should bring verve and laughter to her role as detective.
The idea is good, as I say, but the execution here is horrible. The premise behind Murdering Americans promises much, but the book is so awful that readers will wonder how it ever made its way into print. The dialogue is wooden, the characters, including the baroness, poorly developed, and many of the situations either nonsensical or wrongheaded. Would it really be possible for a cosmopolitan woman like the baroness, the head of an English college, to be so ignorant about the United States? Would a university like Freeman State that wished to preserve politically correct speech blindly invite someone like the Baroness Troutbeck to serve as a visiting professor?
Then there are the technical errors. Much of the action in this book takes place in May and June, when American college students are on summer break. Edwards has Jack accused of causing an uproar on campus in late May, but few colleges are in session in late May. The campus shooting scene at the end of the book, in which the killer is caught and the murders are finally solved, is also poorly rendered. Here Edwards misses the chance to write a spoof of American mores; thousands of students have gathered, one man is shot dead and another wounded, and there is no mention of the campus being shut down or the accusations regarding gun control that would follow such an incident.
There are bright moments in the book. The political satire is amusing in places, and two private eyes, Mike and Vera, who have taken their names from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series, spice up several lackluster scenes.
Having written negatively of this book, let me add that I nevertheless intend to read one or two more books in this series if only to determine whether my objections were caused by Edwards’ American foray or by her general style. Perhaps the books set in her native England will rise to the satirical possibilities promised by her ideas.
In a slightly older mystery series, Stephen Dobyns writes of Saratoga, of private eye Charlie Bradshaw, and his friend Victor Plotz. In Saratoga Fleshpot, Plotz takes center stage as he becomes involved in murder and horse theft. Having fallen on hard times, Plotz takes a job at the track to watch over a valuable display of paintings. His duties as a security guard lead him to observe strange happenings at the track involving the sale of horses, and soon he himself is on the run from both police and criminals with a horse and a stable hand.
Plotz’s sense of humor and the wild situations in which he finds himself gives these mysteries a sense of fun and adventure. Dobyns, a poet and the author of seventeen novels, adroitly maneuvers us around Saratoga without letting his knowledge of that city get in the way of his story.
While enjoying Saratoga Fleshpot last week at the beach, I was also reading Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc, a work that Twain considered his best. For whatever reasons, Twain, an agnostic often sardonic in his talk of gods and men, found in Joan of Arc a true heroine for the ages. Dobyns also has Plotz mention the French saint when discussing the time spent hiding the stolen horse at the home of Charlie Bradshaw:
“The girls had found brushes and were getting the burrs out of Fleshpot’s tail and mane. These were not horse brushes but colorful plastic brushes meant for little girls’ hair. I don’t know, there is something scary about a twelve-year-old, a fourteen-year-old and a sixteen-year-old with a passionate sense of mission. It makes you realize how that kook Joan of Arc got as far as she did.”
This happy convergence of Twain and Dobyns, of teenage girls and Joan of Arc, made me laugh aloud. Find a copy of Saratoga Fleshpot and enjoy!