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by Lou Allin
Five Star, April 2006
291 pages
ISBN: 159414253X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Professor Maddie Driscoll has been at Copper University for a long, long time. She knows who teaches what, what the political in-fighting is all about, and why she wants no part of it. She would just like to not have to teach another course of bonehead grammar to another freshman class, and have a shot at a little more money for the department. She sprinkles her conversations, internal and external, with phrases from a broad section of English literature; I'm sure I missed more than I noticed.

It's the beginning of another semester. And it's an inauspicious beginning for senior Cheryl Crawford, who plunges from a library window to her death. The department decides to give her a posthumous diploma, because her senior thesis is, for all practical purposes, complete.

Then Department Chairman Malcolm Driscoll, noted for his contentious nature and epicurean tastes, is murdered. Maddie, along with the rest of the department, chafes under the temporary leadership of Flo Andrews. When Flo is arrested for Malcolm's murder, Maddie is the next temporary chair. Flo appeals to Maddie for help. Maddie is also tracking down Cheryl's family, and dealing with some family issues of her own.

A LITTLE LEARNING IS A MURDEROUS THING is a sometimes grim, fairly realistic picture of the way things are at a small university right now. The economic pressures, the in-fighting, the 'publish or perish' requirements for the few available tenured positions, the changes mandated by various interest groups -- Allin has all those scenarios down pat.

Maddie Driscoll, as a character, will seem very familiar to women of a certain age. She's been married, she's on her own, she's got a parent who makes demands on her time, and she's pretty happy with her life. She's at that place in her career where she can see the end of it, see where she's been, and isn't sure she's done all she wanted to do but knows there isn't much she can change at this stage of the game. So she looks outside her career, or inside it from a different angle, in order to keep her interest up and her brain challenged.

What I particularly like about this Allin book is the way in which Maddie views the world around her. Sometimes her mental speech is a little choppy, but who among us speaks in complete sentences in our own head all the time? Her descriptions of the natural world are evocative and lovely, even when that natural world is cold and unwelcoming. Allin's ability to skewer academic types is reminiscent of some of Ruth Dudley Edwards' work. The plot twists won't, in retrospect, come as a surprise to anyone who reads a lot of mysteries, but the plot does what it needs to do.

If you've liked Allin's other series (Belle Palmer, amateur sleuth), then A LITTLE LEARNING will be another series for you to enjoy. If you like academic murder, murder set in the arctic north, strong female sleuths, and/or sleuths with dogs, then A LITTLE LEARNING belongs on your list of books to read. I look forward to the next in this series.

Reviewed by P. J. Coldren, February 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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