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.