by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
February 21, 2003
DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCH
SEATTLE -- Henry Martin has sent me a new book, a mystery set in the town where we both used to live, Princeton. It is a paperback with a cover containing words and a picture.
The words are, reading down, 1) THE PRINCETON MURDERS; 2) Faculty Brunch Recipes Included;3) Big Crime on Campus; 4) Death is Academic; 5) Ann Waldron.
The first is the title and the last the name of the author, a writer of Southern extraction with whom (I confess) I am slightly acquainted. The others may be alternate titles that did not make the final cut. Whatever they are, the testify to the truism that murder must advertise.
The picture shows the facade of Nassau Hall ringed in ivy. The two tigers, couchant as usual when the president is not in her office, are both blindfolded with what look like towels from Jadwyn Gym. What it is that they are not meant to see is anyone's guess.
The story- and you may read on without fear of my giving away either the truly horrible lethal weapon or the one who wielded it - is this. A newspaperwoman from Florida named McLeod Dulaney has been invited to teach the writing seminar taught in alternate semesters by John McPhee (the only real name in the book, so far as I can see, though John himself does not make even a cameo appearance). In the real world of journalism, being offered this appointment ranks slightly above the Pulitzer Prize or a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, so we are to understand that McLeod is, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, a writer of some eminence.
Her students are as PC a group of ethnically diverse Princeton undergraduates as one would expect in a work of fiction.
The depiction of the faculty is, however, libelously distorted, for we (and my status as emeritus does not forbid me the use of the first person plural) are depicted as doing little other than going to each other's dinner parties and drinking madly. And never, even in our cups, mentioning a book.
The redeeming feature is that the villain is, while not altogether unrelated to the faculty, not an actual member.
Ann Waldron has had the very good economic sense to make all the victims members of the English Department. Henry writes me that Logan Fox has happily watched copies of the book fly off the shelves of Micawber Books, which is hardly surprising, given the great interest that everyone has in the violent death of English professors.
The recipes testify both to Ann Waldron's Southern origins and to her skill as a writer of mysteries, for they are obviously planted as misleading clues to how the murders were actually committed: by hyperingestation of bacon, grits, eggs, sausage, cheese, salt, and butter.
The subtext here, I think, is to make the reader aware of what he could scarcely have missed: this is not a hard-boiled thriller. In fact, Dulaney may just be the most soft-boiled detective to come along since Miss Marple.
The book made me long for more. Not more of such food, to be sure, and not any further decimation of the English Department, fascinating as that would be, but more of Princeton. More of Nassau Street Seafood, the Small World coffee shop, Wild Oats, and even the Trenton Times, all of which I miss. Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.