Genre: Cozy Mystery
Source: Great Escapes Book Tour
In the sleepy college town of Copper Bluff, South Dakota, English professor Emmeline Prather is enjoying the start of a new semester. But when one of her students dies working on the fall musical, it disrupts life on the small, quiet campus. Although the police rule the death accidental, Prof. Prather has good reason to suspect foul play.
Unmasking the murderer proves much more challenging than finding dangling participles, so Em recruits fellow English professor Lenny Jenkins for assistance. Together, they comb the campus and vicinity for clues, risking their reputations and possibly their jobs. After an intruder breaks into Em’s house, Lenny advises caution—and perhaps a change of address. Em, on the other hand, is all the more determined to forge ahead, convinced they’re on the brink of an important breakthrough.
And I was lucky to have a guest post by the author! Enjoy....
It’s October, and for me, the month means dark streets, dead leaves, and disturbing stories. As a college English teacher, I’m always happy to indulge my students’ childhood nostalgia and read them a spooky tale. Although we read lots of material in a literature course, one of my students’ favorite go-to autumn authors is Edgar Allan Poe. (Just typing the name reminds me of one of my own persnickety professors who swore he would fail anyone who spelled it “Allen.” Thankfully, I am not nearly as harsh.)
The most requested story of Poe’s is the “Tell-Tale Heart,” probably because it is one of the shortest or because it has a seriously creepy video version on YouTube. (Look for the one that says PBS beside it.) But the other reason for its allure is the sheer senselessness of the crime; it's downright baffling. Over the years, I’ve noticed my students can be quite sympathetic if they understand a character’s motives. One example is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” a story where students overwhelming sympathize with the murderer. (If you haven’t read Faulkner’s short story, do. It’s one of the best examples of plotting I can think of. Another is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a novel by Agatha Christie.)
But why does the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” kill the old man he’s taking care of? It’s a question video adaptations try to answer by making up motives, suggesting the old man abused him. But we have no textual evidence to support that theory. What we do know is that the narrator is unreliable (as we call him in lit class). Though he professes how “acute” his senses are and how “healthy” his mind is, we cannot trust him. He tells us he murdered the old man because of his eye; it was like a “vulture’s.” It drove him to it, he argues, and we sort of believe him because he can’t commit the deed, despite his attempts seven nights in a row, when the “Evil Eye” is closed. If eyes are windows to the soul, what did the old man see in the narrator that prompted the vicious attack? That’s one of the questions my students attempt to answer.
If all this sounds too dark for a cozy mystery blog, it isn’t. While cozy mysteries come up with better motives for murder, they also follow traditional mystery tropes that were first introduced by none other than the great master himself. In fact, Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered the first modern detective story. It not only uses an amateur sleuth, Auguste Dupin, it also uses the locked-room technique that so many mystery writers and readers are fond of. Hiding evidence in plain sight also comes from a short story of Poe’s, “The Purloined Letter.” So while many cozies shy away from the darker side of mystery, they still have an important connection with its traditions.
I’ve included some pictures from a trip to New York I took with my family a few years ago. On “Edgar Allan Poe Street” were two markers where the great mystery writer might have penned his legendary poem “The Raven.” The street was a field in 1844, and the farmhouse Poe lived in is, of course, no longer there. Thus the exact location of the house is still disputed today.
I hope you enjoy the pictures and short detour into the past. Thank you to Great Escapes Book Tour for featuring my book, and to bloggers and readers, thank you for writing and reading. I appreciate your time and dedication to a craft whose history casts long shadows.
And of course, if you are interested in reading the book here is the chance to win one!
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