Thursday, September 6, 2007

Simon Said by Sarah Shaber

When I finished reading Simon Said my first thought was this is what an academic mystery should be. After ranting about how bad the Princeton Murder book was I feel compelled to explain what makes this one so much better.

Simon Shaw, the protagonist of Shaber’s stories, is a history professor at Keenan College in North Carolina. From the outset, you get a good sense of what life is like in an academic setting. It is cut-throat and demanding yet also compelling and a labor of love. Throughout the story, Shaber continually returns to Shaw’s academic duties. Because it is the middle of summer and he is teaching summer school, he has the opportunity to solve the historical crime that presents itself to him. But, he still has to partake in departmental politics, teach class, and spend time researching in the library. Unlike other academic mysteries that I have come across, Shaber didn’t decide to use an academic because they have a history of being good researchers, but then write a story that has less than nothing to do with academia. Instead, she weaves together a plausible story that combines university life with amateur detecting. (In one of her later books, The Fugitive King, the story veers away from academia quickly. However, a few key scenes early in the book are dead-on caricatures of professor-student relationships. I was willing to overlook the overdone mold of removing the academic from academia to create a more logical setting for a murder case because of the way she set up the beginning of the story.)

Moreover, Shaber’s descriptions of Keenan College portray a clear picture of campus life at this (fictional) institution. She describes not only the buildings, but also the finer points of a university setting – the administrative staff who is integral to the running of the institution, the hanger-on students who can’t adjust to graduating, the community that surrounds the campus that accepts the eccentricities of university life. Her descriptions gave a great sense of life at a small Southern college.

There are flaws; it isn’t perfect. Reading the book I knew that Shaber herself was not an academic. I don’t remember anything in particular that caught my attention, but little comments suggested a somewhat stereotypical perception of higher academics. I read one review that was disgusted by her disregard for tenure policies. Nonetheless, these discrepancies did not turn me off to the story.

Most importantly, I felt that Shaber created a realistic character whose actions largely reflected human nature. Shaw’s conversations were authentic. His actions, while not always logical, were more realistic because of that. The relationships that he develops with Gates and Julia through the book are engaging.

Obviously, I was not alone in my praise for this book. It received the Malice Domestic Award from St. Martin’s Press. Shaber wrote at least five other books in the series, but I heard that she had publisher/editor troubles and has not had any new books released. I hope that changes as I think that Shaber is a welcome addition to the world of academic mysteries.

1 comment:

Shannon said...

Now that's one that I will definitely pick up - at the mystery bookstore I recently discovered in San Mateo near Kev's office!