The Red Queen’s Run – A Red Solaris Mystery
Henery Press 280 pages
$28.79 hardcover $14.26 trade paper $2.99 Kindle
Focused on Murder – A Spirit Lake Mystery
CreateSpace 286 pages
$11.59 trade paper $2.99 Kindle
A journalism professor and a press photographer are two of the newest amateur sleuths drawn into investigating murders in their own back yards. A crumpled body at the bottom of concrete stairs in a Nevada university journalism school and a corpse buried in snow in northern Minnesota are the beginning points for these two rewarding whodunits. Both books are the initial offerings in mystery series. In these two mysteries you can get to know the appealing protagonists and be ready for the next installments. Both are due this year.
Morris’s Red Queen mystery is several stories in one: an inside look at the jealousies and esoteric workings of academia, a love story and, of course, a whodunit. The crime and the novel revolve around the journalism school at a western university. Lest you imagine that a university is not the place to look for murderous intent, Morris begins her book this way:
Anyone who thinks a college campus is a haven of scholarship and civility hasn’t been paying attention. Last year, I sat through a dozen faculty meetings with recurring visions of Dr. Amy Bishop flooding my mind. I could almost see Bishop seated in a 2010 faculty meeting at the University of Alabama, then see her stand, aim a nine millimeter gun at her friends and colleagues across the table and begin firing. Before her gun jammed, Bishop had killed three people, wounded three others…
This description is in the words of journalism professor Meredith “Red” Solaris, narrator of the first-person story. This jolting beginning puts you on guard for the confrontations that ensue among the faculty at Mountain West University. When the dean of the journalism school is found dead, it’s unclear if it was an accident or homicide. Before too long, Solaris has demonstrated her human relations skills keeping the school of journalism together amid the rivalry, rancor and professional conflicts that emerge with the dean’s death. Members of the mutinous and possibly murderous faculty are drawn with detail so you can imagine them as real (and unusual) people plotting against each other.
Thirty-five year old Solaris, called Red because of her dark, thick red hair, is challenged to maintain the independence of the school, determine if one of her colleagues is a killer and generally decide the direction her life should take. She worries that people are expecting too much from her. But she has help from Sadie, a close friend she regularly meets over wine and, most important, a handsome police detective assigned to the case.
Is it murder or an accident? The investigation drags on as we watch Solaris sort out motives, uncover several surprises, and gradually develop feelings for the detective. Through Solaris’s asides and Morris’s voice you become comfortable with the level-headed, if sometimes insecure lead character. Solaris may be an academic but her background also has made her a good sleuth. For example, she meets an attorney who wants to appear kindly but, “His tone was friendly but his eyes were not.”
“Is there no limit to the wickedness of the journalism faculty?” Sadie asks Solaris at one of their luncheons. Wait for the clever conclusions in the circuitous ending and you’ll find out.
In Townsdin’s Focused on Murder, murder is not the only crime going on amid the frozen lakes and frigid forests of northern Minnesota and rash but resourceful news photographer Britt Johansson is right in the middle of it.
When the tall Pulitzer Prize winner is betrayed by her husband and fired from the Los Angeles Times, she returns to her hometown of Spirit Lake where she hopes to reconnect with her childhood boyfriend and her gay brother who runs a restaurant. She lands a job taking pictures in the generally sleepy northern Minnesota bureau of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. After a career shooting in war-torn parts of the world, taking snaps at town-hall meetings is putting Johansson to sleep, so when she accidentally stumbles on a body in the snow, she latches onto the story.
Told by the sheriff and her newspaper boss to stay out of it, Johansson naturally dives in. What she discovers going on in the back woods shocks her and ultimately the community—and will do the same for readers. All that snow can’t cover the ruined lives and evil family secrets.
This passage from early in the book describes Johansson—also a reformed drinker—and demonstrates author Townsdin’s writing skill and sense of humor:
“The word patience did not exist in my vocabulary. Act first, think later—maybe. Another one of those character defects they talk about in AA. Personality traits I’d been proud of turned out to be what they wanted you to stop.”
Johansson is adroit getting information from the collection of seedy, seamy characters that Townsdin has assembled, but all Johansson’s attempts to reconcile with her estranged boyfriend seem to fail: “That was not the first time Ben took the wag out of my tail.”
Townsdin has created a challenging mystery, spiced it with a cast of deceitful suspects and added appealing touches of noir in the dark settings and some of the dialog.
“The sky was the color of skim milk, what passed for sunshine in this part of the country.”
“I tossed the lie in with the rest of the sins in my storehouse.”
The novel’s ending is complex, compelling and like the conclusion of The Red Queen’s Run , leaves an opening for more adventures.