What mysteries do English professors read when they need a break after a long teaching day? I don’t know about others, but I delve into Joanna Dobson’s academic mysteries starring Karen Pelletier, an untenured English professor at prestigious Enfield College. Raised on the wrong side of the tracks in Lowell, Massachusetts, single-mother Karen Pelletier has managed to finish degrees by working odd jobs. After receiving her Ph.D., Pelletier supports herself as an adjunct. Her scholarship on 19th century American women authors wins her an offer from the Enfield’s Department of English and Karen leaves a long-term relationship with a New York City narcotics cop to accept the offer. The protagonist’s experiences at Enfield are the basis for Dobson’s mysteries. The reader follows Karen from her entre into Enfield’s campus life in Dobson’s Quieter Than Sleep, through her years of teaching up to the year in which she is eligible for tenure in Death Without Tenure.
As Death Without Tenure opens, Pelletier is on the eve of submitting her tenure application along with copies of her scholarly publications. Karen’s basking in the glow of her accomplishments is ended by the intrusion of Miles Jewell, former English Department chair. Miles tells her that the administration has declared that only one person per department per year will be granted tenure—Enfield’s attempt at balancing the tenured faculty members with the untenured. Karen realizes that her tenured is no longer assured.
The other English faculty member eligible for tenure is Joe Lone Wolf, a popular Native American professor who has not yet completed his dissertation. The current English Department chair, Nick Hilton, is actively promoting the tenure of Lone Wolf. Seeing himself as an instrument of social justice and progressive thinking, Hilton proclaims that Lone Wolf’s “speakings” should be given the same importance as Pelletier’s publications.
As in Dobson’s earlier novels, Pelletier finds herself unwittingly involved in a murder when Joe Lone Wolf is found dead from an overdose of Peyote buttons. Lacking the support of her college-age daughter, Amanda, who is touring Nepal, and her boyfriend, Lieutenant Charlie Piotrowski, of the Massachusetts Bureau of Criminal Investigation who is in Iraq serving with the National Guard, Pelletier must face the double crisis of her colleague’s death and her tenure struggle alone.
I really enjoy the way Dobson populates Pelletier’s world with memorable English faculty: Sally Chenille, a punk professor who makes the circuit of talk shows like Oprah and The View spouting the “sexiest tenets of cultural theory;” Harriet Pearson, the Director of Women’s Studies who fears that her scholarship is inferior to Pelletier’s and suggests that Pelletier might be too successful and would be better served at a larger research university; Miles Jewell, retired department chair who is suspicious of anyone teaching authors other than dead white men. Equally interesting are Karen’s non-departmental friends: Greg Samoorian, political science; Earlene Johnson, Dean of Students; Jill Greenberg, sociology; and a group of former students whose lives are still intertwined with Pelletier’s.
However, what truly makes Dobson’s mysteries appealing are two-fold: first, her insights into the vagaries of academic life–faculty who regard a professor’s healthy class numbers as indicative that the professor isn’t teaching substantive material as well as faculty and administration who regard the high numbers of students receiving A’s as indicative of excellence in teaching; second, the historical and literary focus of her plots: Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett’s autograph manuscript of The Maltese Falcon, Serena Northbury, a fictitious 19th century author; and a Peyton-Place-like 1950’s novel, Oblivion Falls written by the fictitious Mildred Deakin.
Looking for mysteries with a literary twist? Joanne Dobson is the writer for you!