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by M.L. Longworth
Penguin Books, September 2012
296 pages
ISBN: 0143121545

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

For some time now, efforts in the mystery genre to harken back to the golden age have been received with—at least from a critical perspective—mixed results, as most readers for better or for worse associate such cozies with craft, culinary, or cat mysteries that too often are too cute for their own good. With MURDER IN THE RUE DUMAS, author M.L. Longworth attempts with varying results to take back the golden age and cozy subgenre from the crafts and back to a more mystery-centric that has more in common with Christie than crafts and cats.

When Dr George Moutte, Dean of the Theology department at the Université d'Aix throws an extravagant party where he is expected to announce his designated successor as well as the recipient of the prestigious Dumas fellowship, attendees are shocked when he proceeds to get into a verbal altercation with a professor in his department, delays the announcement of the Dumas fellow, and announces the indefinite postponement of his retirement—which creates quite the panic among the department's faculty. Two students attending the party who have eyes on the Dumas, Yann and Thierry, decide to sneak into the Dean's office with the hope of finding the file that will reveal which student will receive the fellowship and instead find the difficult Dean bludgeoned to death in his office.

As a result, Chief Magistrate Antoine Verlaque (previously seen in DEATH AT THE CHATEAU BREMONT) is called into investigate and he quickly finds no shortage of suspects or motive. An appointment to succeed Moutte or being awarded the Dumas were both lucrative enough to justify the crime—not to mention the fact that no one seemed to care for the Dean and his prickly personality very much, yet the very "hands on" nature of the crime and the subsequent break-in of the Dean's apartment leads him and his colleagues to believe that this crime was a bit too practical for a group of academics. Joined by his tepid girlfriend law professor Marine Bonnet, Verlaque investigates the crime and finds that there is much more than meets the eye to this case and it goes far beyond the confines of academia.

In many ways, Longworth's book sets up like a lesser version of a P.D. James novel, where everyone despises everyone else and has ample motive; but it quickly becomes more akin to one of the later, lesser (to put it politely) Agatha Christie mystery replete with stock characters and a protagonist that makes you wish another character was on the page. Verlaque could not be more broadly drawn and his relationship with Marine is often cringe-worthy in its clichés; it is even more frustrating since the two students who discover the body and play a key role in the investigation are colorful and begging for more attention. Longworth draws heavily upon her time living in Aix by providing rich detail--but the several pages-long digressions on fine food and wine (the author has written for publications such as Bon Appéit, and it shows) are distracting and feel as if they are there just to pad the narrative. These reservations aside, Longworth does construct an interesting mystery that makes the book quite accessible for those pining for a puzzle-centered narrative that provides little offense or reason not to read to the end. In particular, those with experience in the realm of academia will find added value in her somewhat satirical take on that world.

Overall, MURDER IN THE RUE DUMAS is book of mixed results, and comes closer to failing than succeeding; but for those who pine for the Golden Age may find it a worthwhile read. But generally, most readers will find the characterizations and plot thin, and Longworth's lengthy digressions on food and drink a distraction in a mostly lackluster novel.

§ Ben Neal is a public librarian in northeastern Tennessee and likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, October 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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