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Donna Andrews has spun a flock of twenty-nine bird-titled cozies starring blacksmith and mom Meg Langslow, who tidily solves the many murders that seem to plague an idyllic Virginian college town. Andrews's latest is MURDER MOST FOWL. The title characters are an ornery flock of Sumatran chickens, fat, long, florid-tailed black birds that are perhaps the poultry closest in appearance to English ravens. In MURDER MOST FOWL, the Sumatrans prove ominous. They preside over a summer stock theatre production of Shakespeare's infamous "Scottish play," directed by Meg's affable husband, a professor at the local liberal arts campus, Caerphilly College.
This endeavor shares space with a Society for Creative Anachronism historical re-enactment community that is dressing up as medieval Scottish warriors. Meanwhile, wannabe filmmaker Damien Goodman is documenting the production. Always in everyone's way, Damien isn't behind the scenes so much as he's chewing the scenery.
Meanwhile, the actors are doing what community theatre actors allegedly do: create real-life drama, hold grudges, and maybe even fantasize about revenge. When a campaign of vandalism creates sound and fury, Meg thinks the production, encampment, and film are as cursed as they can be. However, a murder proves her wrong, and so she goes about trying to solve it, and to save her family from the unknown murderer(s).
I will not say more about the murder because it takes place only nearly halfway through the book. Even so, MURDER MOST FOWL begins suspensefully and its tension continues all the way through. In the first pages, Meg's children find something very disturbing, which looks like fingers rising ghoulishly out of the Virginia dirt. This encounter sets the scene for murder to transpire, keeping the reader on tenterhooks until it does and well beyond that moment. The constant references to the curse of MACBETH also help to keep the reader on the lookout for catastrophe.
Meg constantly finds herself rethinking and newly analyzing the doomed documentary auteur's unfinished cinematic masterpiece, convinced that he has deliberately or accidentally captured some image that upsets his community and dooms him. In that raw footage, Meg is convinced, malfeasance and motives hide in plain sight. This narrative nicely parallels that of MACBETH, in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth constantly review their past experiences and actions, hoping to see something that will make sense of their mysterious, frightening universe.
Something must also be said about Andrews's take on the politics of academia. With the television show THE CHAIR's fly-on-the-wall take on small liberal arts college politics, Andrews's attempt to skewer the same deserves comment. THE CHAIR focuses on its eponymous Korean-American professor's attempt to live down various kinds of microaggression and contain the macroaggressive antics of the department's resident less-than-mediocre casual white supremacist hotshot while her students study a topic that much of the world considers utterly inconsequential, despite the obvious connections between media literacy and contemporary global politics. A similar mockery of academic culture shapes the humor of MURDER MOST FOWL. Meg laments the "internecine warfare that constituted academic politics at Caerphilly College." History, English, and Drama departments battle each other; for some reason, they don't collectively gang up on money fields such as business, nor unionize and take on such real-world academic issues as the job precarity and poverty of non-tenured instructors or the American student loan debt crisis.
Instead, we get the same idea of the American college touted in media such as Kurt Vonnegut's 1990 novel HOCUS POCUS or Alex Keshishian's 1994 Hollywood melodrama WITH HONORS: a world in which, to quote Andrews, the men who teach college "look professorial," they teach bourgeois-Marxist one-topic courses such as "Class Consciousness Examined through the Lens of S's Comedies," and they wear "three piece suits" that make them look like "Teddy Roosevelt." Men like that probably existed once at my academic institution but surely retired decades ago.
Meanwhile, Caerphilly's professors are overburdened by the "Paperwork Reduction Committee" but thankfully have recourse to a law firm that upper administration "usually calls to shepherd faculty members through the legal system" when they get into rather more trouble than toil. Also, the resident "unreconstructed Confederate" is something of a loner and his beliefs roundly condemned by others; an aberration that does not seem difficult to neutralize.
Ultimately, Meg's blacksmithing experience helps her to save the day by providing her with both physical and moral strength just when she needs it. Will Caerphilly confront its toxic culture and build back better? Maybe in Meg Lanslow's thirtieth outing, we will find out.
§ Rebecca Nesvet, of Little River, Wisconsin, teaches English Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and researches Victorian penny "bloods" and "dreadfuls." She has written for Reviewing the Evidence since 2004.
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, September 2021
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