Review (and rant): The Princeton Murders by Ann Waldron

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers (something I would normally avoid but this book made me very cranky)

According to MysteryNet.com a cosy mystery is

“…focused on ‘members of a closed group, often in a country house or village, who became suspects in a generally bloodless and neat murder solved by a great-detective kind of investigator.” The stories almost always involved solving some form of puzzle, and invariably, observation, a keen understanding of human nature, and a heavy reliance on gossip were indispensable tools used in the solving of the crime.”

I understand that the genre is not for everyone but when done well they can be intriguing and entertaining. My problem is the sheer volume of rotten ones that get published. With this sub-genre far more than any of the others I read it seems permissible, even encouraged, for gimmickry to take the place of well-developed characters, logical plots and at least a pretense of an understanding of the genre. The Princeton Murders is yet another example of a book where setting and recipes are supposed to make up for a non-puzzling plot and dull, unbelievable characters who display not one whit of understanding of human nature.

McLeod Dulaney is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in Tallahassee who gets invited to be a guest professor at Princeton University for a semester, teaching non-fiction writing. Upon arrival at the university she strolls about a bit soaking in the Ivy-league-ness of the place, attends a rather astonishing number of parties and hooks-up (platonically) with a charming chap called Archie who, alas, becomes an accidental murder victim due to his consumption of a cocktail meant for someone else. Of course the medical and legal authorities are monumentally dim-witted and see nothing odd in his death from liver failure for no apparent reason so treat the death as a natural one. Archie’s colleague Dexter, who was meant to drink the cocktail that knocked-off poor Archie, finally succumbs to our persistent murderer and also dies from liver failure for no apparent reason a few days later but the authorities (still displaying an alarming degree of dim-wittedness) remain unconcerned. McLeod’s students however are much smarter and they decide it must have been murder. Their ‘investigation’ involves repeatedly asking inane and irrelevant questions of the half-dozen or so people who attended both functions at which the fatal cocktails were consumed and participating in a load of guesswork about which one of them might have done it based, for the most part, on how fat they are (I started to count how many times a character’s fat-ness or lack thereof was mentioned but I lost track after 23).

Aside from the utter tedium of the plot it was also incredibly clumsy as everything was telegraphed well in advance. I knew for a certainty from page 15 onwards that the culprit would turn out to be a woman called Ginger. I have no particularly astute powers of deduction but when McLeod, for no sensible reason whatsoever, says to Ginger with respect to her email password “I always use ‘Peaches’ as I’m originally from Georgia” I caught on to the fact that Ginger would soon be reading McLeod’s emails. Seriously it was the literary equivalent of being at a child’s pantomime and having all the kiddies yelling “look out he’s behind you”. But if that wasn’t sign enough of who the murderer would be McLeod kept repeating that Ginger couldn’t be the culprit because she was too nice (and not nearly fat enough) to be a killer so none of the students ever spoke to her though all the other suspects were grilled multiple times. To top off the plot sloppiness Ginger’s motive (she’d had an affair with and been dumped by the bloke she wanted to kill) was never mentioned until after she’d been caught although all the other suspects’ possible motives were discussed at nauseating length.

Frankly I think even those who look for gimmicks would have been disappointed by this offering given that the ‘recipes’ were for such gourmet treats as champagne and orange juice (that is literally the entire recipe followed by the instruction ‘mix’) and a slightly fancy version of cheese on toast. In the end I found the characters completely devoid of any understanding of human nature (keen or otherwise) and the plot about as puzzling as carpet. Hrrrrmph.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 2/5

Publisher Berkley Prime Crime [2003]; ISBN 04251880205; Length 263 pages

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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7 Responses to Review (and rant): The Princeton Murders by Ann Waldron

  1. Bernadette – I agree with you 100%. Whether a story is a cosy or something in another sub-genre, the author’s first concern needs to be a good, believable plot and strong characters. Without that, and some respect for the reader’s intelligence, the book falls flat. Extra recipes, lots of blood, and rich historical detail aren’t going to save wooden, predictable characters and a thin plot. Spoilers or no, thanks for the reminder.

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  2. Norm/Uriah says:

    Thanks Bernadette, I love honest reviews. There are far too many times when reviewers pussy foot around a terrible book which has no merit and should not have been published. The trouble is that this is not just happening with new authors but established authors are producing rubbish and their editors and agents are apparently too scared to tell them.

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  3. Kerrie says:

    I’m surprised you finished it! Sounds like the sort you generally throw hard at the wall. 🙂

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  4. Maxine says:

    Sounds dreadful! You do much better when you stick with your virtual reading guide! I have just read a real cracker, by the way, Water-blue Eyes, review t/c in a day or two. And only 176 pages long.

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  5. bernadetteinoz says:

    Kerrie I only finished it because I was all warm and toasty in bed one night and didn’t have an extra book on my bedside table and was too warm and lazy to de-toast-ify myself to get another book.

    I have learned (a) always have multiple books wherever I am and (b) only listen to Maxine

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  6. Maxine says:

    Oh no, the pressure! The stress! I don’t know if I can stand the responsibility, Bernadette 😉

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