Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - A Nice Murder for Mom by James Yaffe

The alphabet in crime fiction meme is within sight of the end of our journey – just one more letter to go. For now, though, we’re taking one last “rest stop” before we reach our destination. Thanks, as ever, to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for guiding us on our way and for organizing all of the sightseeing. This week’s stop is the letter “Y,” and I’ve chosen James Yaffe’s A Nice Murder for Mom, published in 1988, as my contribution.

As A Nice Murder for Mom begins, we meet Dave, a former New York City Homicide Squad detective. Recently widowed, Dave’s decided he can no longer live in New York, where memories of his wife are too painful. So he accepts a job as an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office of Mesa Grande, Colorado. Dave’s one concern about moving is that his mother, who’s in her seventies, will be left alone in New York. She’s unwilling to go with him, though, so Dave makes the move alone. Then, a year later, Dave’s mother agrees to come and visit. She’s a more or less traditional Jewish mother who delights in organizing Dave’s life for him. She also has a practical view of life and a great deal of common sense, and has always enjoyed talking over Dave’s cases with him - usually over Friday night Sabbath dinner. Very often, she’s been able to give him useful insights and advice that have helped him in his investigations. So when Mom arrives, Dave knows what she needs to keep her interested during her visit – a murder. It’s not long before he gets his wish.

One night, Dave’s invited to a poetry reading at Mesa Grande College, where he meets several members of the college’s Department of English. There’s Mike Russo, who teaches American literature and poetry; Samantha Fletcher, a medievalist; Stuart Bellamy, also an expert on American literature; and Marcus Van Horn, Chair of the Department. At the poetry reading, Russo tells Dave that he’d like some advice, and the two plan to meet the next evening after an open house that’s to be held at Van Horn’s home. Just before they part, Russo says he’s on the verge of committing murder and wants Dave’s advice on how to stop himself.

The next night, Dave attends the open house at Van Horn’s, where he again meets the members of the Department of English. This time, though, Bellamy isn’t there, as he’s at home with the ‘flu. Neither is Russo. During the party, Bellamy calls, though, asking to speak with Samantha Fletcher; it seems they had a disagreement about a particular quote, and he has called to concede her point. In the middle of their conversation, there’s a thud and the line falls silent. Afraid that something might be wrong, Fletcher and Dave head over to Bellamy’s house. When they get there, they find Bellamy dead – killed by a blow to the head. After the police arrive to take over the investigation, Dave and Samantha Fletcher return to Van Horn’s, where Mike Russo’s just arrived, claiming that he overslept and was late to the party.

The next morning, Dave finds out that Russo’s been arrested for Bellamy’s murder and has asked for an attorney. Ann Swenson, Mesa Grande’s Public Defender, asks Dave to help her find out what really happened to Bellamy. On one hand, Dave’s only too willing to look into the case; Mike Russo is a friend, and he doesn’t want to believe that Russo’s guilty. On the other, Dave soon learns that Mike Russo had good reason to want to kill Bellamy, and he’d even told Dave he might be on the verge of doing so.

Bellamy and Russo had been hired at the same time, both for tenure-track positions. Then, the decision was made to cut one of the tenure-track spots, and Bellamy was chosen to fill the one remaining tenure-track position. Also, Russo can’t account for his time on the afternoon and evening of the murder. He showed up late to the open house, claiming he overslept, but there’s no-one to corroborate what he said. Then, too, tire tracks matching those of his car were found near Bellamy’s house. Dave begins to investigate, and soon finds out that the case against Russo isn’t as clear-cut as it seems.

Bellamy had plenty of enemies. He was high-handed, arrogant and not exactly popular. So, more than one person had a motive to kill him. And, as it turns out, many of the witnesses and suspects in the case aren’t telling Dave everything they know. So Dave has to work through a tissue of lies and hidden motives to find out who really killed Stuart Bellamy. Through it all, he tells Mom how the case is going, and she gives him advice, hints and a common-sense perspective that helps him get to the truth. In a very real sense, it’s Mom’s practical, common-sense perspective and her intuition that solve this case.

A Nice Murder for Mom is a solid mystery. The pacing and timing work well, and Yaffe provides some unexpected twists that keep the reader engaged. The ending really isn’t predictable. Dave, from whose viewpoint the story is told) is a likable sleuth. We get to know about him and care about him, and he’s believable.

One of the real appeals of this novel, though, is the relationship between Dave and his mother. Mom is a sensible, practical, hard-edged but in some ways sentimental character. She is funny, shrewd and more aware than Dave is of how lonely he’s been since his wife died. She’s a very interesting character, and her loving relationship with her son is woven throughout the novel. It’s easy to see their mutual respect. And yet, that relationship doesn’t become cloying or clichéd, nor does it distract from the mystery. There are also some interesting elements of Jewish culture woven into the domestic parts of the story, along with some Yiddish terms.

Another fascinating aspect of this novel is the look it gives us at the treacherous landscape of college and university politics. We see the spite, jealousy and fear that can be generated in the world of academia, and that adds to the suspense. So does the conflict between the college establishment and the locals. Admittedly, some aspects of college and university life have changed quite a lot since the book was published, but those dated aspects of the novel don’t detract from an enjoyment of it.

Finally, there’s a welcome sense of humor in the novel. Yaffe has a solid ear for dialogue, and he’s witty. That lends a refreshing touch of lightness that moves the story along. For example, here’s the way Yaffe describes the Mesa Grande courthouse when it’s crowded:

“…noisy, bustling, full of thuggish-looking types rubbing elbows in the hallways with buttoned-down, bespectacled young-lawyer types. And you can’t always be sure which of these types are the lawyers and which are the thugs.

A Nice Murder for Mom is a cozy, so fans of thrillers and noir fiction will probably be disappointed. That said, it’s got a solid and believable plot with interesting surprises and some compelling characters. The ending doesn’t wrap the story up neatly; yet for all that, it’s satisfying. And the practical approach that Mom takes to solving crimes will appeal to readers who’ve ever thought of a character, “Now why did ___ do that? That makes no sense!” In fact, on that score alone, I can recommend the book.


  1. This sounds like a very interesting read. I especially like the Mother character. I think that would add to the plot so much. Didn't know about this book, thanks for the introduction. This has been a very intriguing on-going series each week. I'll hate to see it end.

  2. Mason - Oh, I'll miss this ongoing meme, too. I've thoroughly enjoyed learning from everyone's choice of books. And in A Nice Murder for Mom, Mom is definitely an interesting character. She's not at all your "typical" woman in her seventies, and she really adds quite a lot to the story.

  3. I'm going to miss this weekly meme too. I've become so used to thinking about what letter to read next!

    This book looks good on a number of counts - the humour for just one.

  4. This is one I've actually read and I too liked it for the humour in the relationship between the mother and son - it seemed like such a natural thing between the two of them. And clearly universities, like small towns, are not the places of innocence and learning that they might appear at first with all the murdering that seems to take place on these fictional campuses ;)

    I will miss the alphabet meme too - though I have struggled to find books for the last three letters of the alphabet so my brain won't mind having a rest

  5. You've done a great job going through the whole alphabet!

    I'm not familiar with this book...I'll have to find it and check it out. The characters sound really interesting...thanks!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Margaret - I've become accustomed to the meme, too, and to thinking of which book to highlight, etc. I'll miss that, and I will very much miss learning about books that other readers have chosen. I've added quite a lot to my TBR that way : ).

    About the book - the humor really is one of its strong points. Yaffe has a deft touch with both humor and dialogue, so it doesn't seem forced.

    Bernadette - LOL! Yes, it's sometimes not safe at all to be on the campus of a university; you never know what will happen ; ).

    I'm so glad you liked this book, and the mother/son relationship. I thought Yaffe did that very well. I agree, too, that the humor's well done. It's not easy to do that in a murder mystery.

    I'm going to miss the meme, myself. I still have no idea how you've managed to meet your personal one-word-title challenge! I really admire that so much!

  7. Elizabeth - Thanks : ). The meme really has been fun. And I think you will find this book fun and interesting. When I read it again for this meme, and and reminded myself about Dave and Mom's relationship, I thought of your Myrtle Clover and her son, Red. There are differences in the relationships, of course, but there's the same sense of underlying respect.

  8. Margot, I will definitely miss the meme but have a few ideas for the rest of the year.
    I like the idea of keeping Mom interested with a murder especially as my late Mother in law a David Suchet/ Poirot fan would always say before watching him on TV "I like a nice murder".
    We had for several years an advert for our BT telephone company on TV with the actress Maureen Lippman playing what appeared to be a traditional Jewish grandmother, Beatrice Bellman. The adverts were very popular and people would comment that she was exactly like their mother or grandmother and they were not Jewish!

  9. Norman - That BT advert sounds terrific, and I'm not surprised that lots of people identified with the grandmother character. That's how I feel about the character in this novel. She's wonderful that way, I think.

    I smiled when I read what you wrote about your mother-in-law; thanks for sharing that. I can just picture the scene. Maybe that's because I like a good murder, too ; ).

    I'll look forward to seeing what deviltry you come up with to keep us on our mettle through the rest of the year ; ).

  10. I haven't heard of this book either, Margot, so thanks for featuring it and writing such an enticing review. Although I don't read that many cozies, I am a sucker for tough old ladies with grown up sons!

  11. I don't know this book but it does sound like fun. The title alone made me giggle. Sometimes, it's nice to settle down and read a light mystery with fun characters as a break from other crime fiction that are far more sturm und drang.

  12. Maxine - I think you'd like this one. The character of Mom really is interesting and full of common sense, humor and, in her way, toughness. And yet, she's not "hard-edged," either. That's one reason I think this isn't your "typical" cozy.

    Elspeth - You're right; that's what I like about cozies, too. They can be compelling and interesting, but still not harsh and dark. And it's funny you'd mention the title. I really liked it very much, too; in fact, that was what first drew me to it.

  13. Interesting. I've read some of Yaffe's short stories, but never his novels. Thanks.

  14. Martin - Oh, my pleasure. If you enjoy Yaffe's short stories, I think you'll find this anjoyable as well. It's got that folksy feel that his stories do, with enough "bite" to keep the reader's interest and attention.

  15. And here I think blogger ate my comment.

    I have already had several suggestions for my cozy mystery challenge, but perhaps I should keep this one in reserve.

    What a considerate son. So far my mother has been satisfied with my fictional murders (or at least she says so).

  16. Dorte - I'm sorry that Blogger attacked your comment. Sometimes I have to say, I get really annoyed at how capricious it can be!

    I think you would like this one, actually, very much. It's a solid story with an appropriate pace and some interesting characters, especially Mom. And yes, I think Dave is a good son : ). And, by the way, I would say your mother has every reason to be immmensely proud of you and grateful to have such a wonderful daughter : ) : ).