Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sarah R. Shaber, Simon Said
St. Martin’s Press, 1997
The first book in the series featuring Simon Shaw, Profess of History at Kenan College in Raleigh, NC.  I felt, while reading it, that I should like the book more than I was.  I have taught at the college level since 1970, so I tend to be perhaps overly sensitive to "academic" mysteries.  In that respect, the book was better than most--I have only three or four reservations, which are worth mentioning.  (Which should tell you what I think of most mysteries with academic settings.)  My main problem is that I did not like the main character.  We could start with his attitude toward the prosecuting attorney with whom he becomes acquainted (Julia McGloughlan).  He seemed obsessed with what she was wearing (and especially if, according to his tastes, what she was wearing "went with" her hair and general appearance.  Their entire relationship seemed off, somehow.  We could go on to his being something of a mope (with cause, perhaps,  but a mope).

With respect to the academic setting (this is relevant to some of the events in the book)...Part of the story involved a rivalry between Simon and one of his history department colleagues.  Simon received tenure when he was hired, Alex Andrus was an untenured assistant professor.  What struck me as wrong about their portrayal was indicating that Simon's appointment with tenure would preclude Andrus (who was already a member of the faculty when Simon was hired) from getting tenure.  In my experience, that's not how it works.  If Andrus was hired as an assistant professor in a tenure track position, then his eligibility for tenure would become dependent on the quality of his work.  If he was not hired in a tenure-track position, then Simon's hiring would be irrelevant to whether he got tenure--he wouldn't because he was not hired into a tenure-eligible position.  

A second somewhat major plot point arises out of Simon's having been the faculty member in charge of the senior honors thesis course for history majors.  In that course, seniors wrote an honors thesis; for students intending to apply to graduate school in history, that thesis would have been a major thing.  One of the students, Bobby Hinton (who, coincidentally, turns out to be related to the family in which the central murder in the book occurred), received a C.  Not good.  The problem is that Simon was the *only* reader of his thesis.  Every institution with which I am familiar that has an honors thesis option for majors has a committee of faculty who read the theses; these may be outside faculty (I've read several honors theses in economics for other econ programs at other places). 

A third weirdness is that the book is set during the summer session.  If Bobby had completed his course work in the normal 4 years at a small, private, selective, liberal arts college, he would have graduated.  But there he was, and it's not clear why. 

A fourth--Simon has to miss a day of his summer school class, which is an upper division, specialized course in North Carolina history.  And with next to no notice, and with no preparation, another of the history faculty walks in and teaches it?  Really?  I suppose it's possible. 

The initial mystery (to get back to the point of the book) is the discovery of a woman's body, buried beneath what would have been the old cookhouse that is being excavated (archaeologically) by one of Simon’s colleagues.  She is identified as the daughter (Anne Bloodworth) of a wealthy man in the community in the early 20th century; she had disappeared in 1925 (?), and, based on the bullet hole in her skull, murdered on the night she disappeared.  When she disappeared, the servants in the house had been given the night off (by her, to see a movie). her fianc (Adam Bloodworth) who lived in the house  and was her second cousin, whom she did not want to marry) had what turns out to be an iron-clad alibi; and her father(Caleb) was allegedly asleep at the time someone shot her and buried her just outside the main house  (in the cellar of the old cookhouse).  Now, what leaps to your mind about who is the most likely suspect?   Yeah, me too.  But it takes the entire book before (1) the experienced detective on the Raleigh police force, (2) the attorney, and (3) Simon to get it--and, actually, only he gets it.  I suppose I could accept that if I found Simon to be a character with whom I want to spend more time.  But, as I said above, I found him unlikable.  Which is too bad.  Good series are hard to find.

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