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In the tidy little whodunit, Veritas (Bold Strokes Books), Anne Laughlin takes on the hallowed halls of academe, where the back-stabbing isn’t just metaphoric. Grafton College (we like to think that this is a little homage to the queen of American mystery writing, Sue Grafton) is typical of a small-town liberal arts college, this one positioned on a hilltop in the Midwest where the winters are harsh but there are the perks of natural beauty in the landscape. The town and the school have the kind of built-in claustrophobia that inevitably leads to conflict. And some conflicts end in murder.
At 40, Dean Beth Ellis is both a rising star at and slightly malcontented with Grafton. Most of this has to do with the president, David Nigel Landscome, who refers to himself as Nigel and thinks of himself as the sort of lettered college figure that Dickens or Trollope might have conjured, right down to affecting a British accent and ordering Dean Ellis about as if she were his scullery maid.
Beth can’t determine whether or not he’s trying to force her resignation, but she’s not about to give him the satisfaction. Especially not over a professor whose only academic quality seems to be that he’s British and Landscome’s Anglophilia is legendary.
Satisfaction for Beth comes mostly from her work and Landscome is making that difficult. Beth escaped to Grafton to evade her mother–a madam in Nevada–and her past. Her relationships, such as they are, she characterizes as “no strings, plenty of sex, no messy or painful endings.” She’s an academic loner with a penchant for women who don’t interfere with her work. Mel, the local car mechanic, is six feet tall, butch and available when needed for a casual tune-up. After a particularly unpleasant run-in with President Landscome where he forces her to choose between her integrity and her position, Beth stops by Mel’s for the proverbial lube job and gets the tune-up she needs.
Mel is a lease, not a buy, however, and sexy as Mel might be (Mel is like a rent-a-butch–and a little too stock a character as the lesbian lothario in an otherwise well-characterized story), Beth is looking for something different in her personal life. She is also trying to find a way around Landscome and his officious control over her at Grafton.
When the tenure track for the tedious Brit, Dr. Barrow, turns deadly and the new chief of police–a former Chicago homicide detective who has moved back home to care for her parents–heads over to Grafton to meet with Dean Ellis, the plot thickens, twists, and definitely turns.
Sally Sullivan is the real deal. She’s got city smarts and she is onto the seething undercurrent at Grafton. She also has her finger on the pulse of the town–and that includes Mel. And also Katie Murphy, another Graftonite who, along with Beth, may or may not be a suspect in the Barrow murder.
Sally takes on Landscome in the way Beth wishes she might have done, cutting him down to size in his own home and making it clear she has no time for either his foibles or his feints. The question becomes, who had reason to kill Barrow–a man with no talent, despite Landscome’s claims he was a bright light at the prestigious London School of Economics, and a penchant for bedding his female students? And why was Landscome so eager to ensconce him at Grafton?
Will the new Chief get to the bottom of the mystery? Will she and Beth find each other (as the reader begins to hope midway through)? And what about Katie and the ubiquitous Mel? And who did kill Dr. Barrow?
Veritas follows Laughlin’s somewhat less-well-executed first novel, Sometimes Quickly. It’s a fun, well-paced and intriguing mystery with all the components every reader of classic and competent cozies seeks. Beth is a very well-developed character and so is Sally. Mel could have used some toning down, but she will live masterfully in the dreams of many a female reader, since, like the unicorn, she only exists in fiction.
Veritas is perfect reading for a cold winter night by the fire. Satisfying and solid. Laughlin was just awarded a residency at the prestigious Ragdale Foundation, so no doubt readers can look forward to seeing a third novel soon.
By Anne Laughlin
Bold Strokes Books
Paperback, 9781602821248, 288pp.