In the halcyon days of the Thirties, when the pulps were king, most stories about murder were chock-full of cops, detectives and robbers. A lot of superlative modern crime novelists follow that formula, because who else deals with murders as much? Now there is a plethora of books out there featuring unconventional sleuths, but with few exceptions I have a tough time suspending my disbelief. How often can a priest or a plumber stumble upon, and then solve, a murder?
That is the essential problem that I had with Dying for Murder by Susan Kingsmill. Her sleuth is Cordi O'Calaghan, a zoology professor, and this is her third case, but the first book that I have read. Cordi, along with her sidekicks Martha and Duncan are travelling to Spaniel Island, a border island off of South Carolina, to a research station to study and record the song of Indigo Buntings. The island itself is an interesting place, well described in all of its variety by Ms. Kingsmill. The people on the place are a mixed lot as well, although the scientists sounded a bit too alike for me. I had to keep track of who was who for a while until I began to get the feel of each person. Not long after that the director of the research station, Stacey Franklin, is found in her cabin, bound, gagged and dead. A hurricane is also on the way, so that the police are unable to get to the island for days, so it's up to our zoologist to solve the crime, with varying degrees of help and reluctance from everyone stuck on the island. Ms. Kingsmill writes lovingly of the scientists and their research, and these are the best parts of the book for me.
The tangled skein of events, that ends with Stacey's death are interesting, and their revelations spool out in a good manner. The fact that Cordi has done this two other times though, and everyone there knows it, made it tough sledding for me. There was some good twists and turns in the book, mostly towards the end as the secrets come out fast and furious, but the disbelief just kept wearing me down. The prose was a bit stiff as well, never really coming to life except for the descriptions of the flora and fauna. When Cordi was telling her story she sounded like a zoology professor, and I wanted her to sound like a suspense novelist. All in all this was a solid book, but it didn’t reach out and grab me the way that a prime thriller should.