Death without tenure – Joanne Dobson


I love an academic mystery. Amanda Cross, Michael Innes, Christine Poulson, Janet Neel & Joanne Dobson. It’s been a few years since the last Joanne Dobson novel & I was afraid she had stopped writing them but I was very pleased to discover Death without Tenure. Our detective is Karen Pelletier, English professor at an elite New England college. Karen has worked hard to get to her current position. A single mother at 19, abandoned by her family & her baby’s father, she worked hard, studying at night to get a degree & get a teaching job. Now, she’s been at Enfield College six years & she’s up for tenure. If she gets tenure, it will mean her job is secure for the rest of her career. She’s done the work, published books & articles, sat on committees, had glowing teaching assessments & is admired & respected by students & colleagues. The only downside to her life is that her boyfriend, Charlie Piotrowski, has been called up from his job as a homicide detective to serve with the National Guard in Iraq & he’ll be gone for at least a year.

Her rival for tenure is Joseph Lone Wolf, a man who has never been a part of the academic team at Enfield. Standoffish, aloof, he’s never sat on a committee or published anything. There are rumours he never finished the dissertation for his degree. But, he’s a Native American, & the head of department, Ned Hilton, doesn’t want to appear discriminatory towards a minority staff member so he’s leaning towards giving tenure to Joe. Karen is incensed by the unfairness of the whole process & has a very public argument with Lone Wolf over his behaviour towards Ayesha, one of their students. So, when Joe is found murdered, Karen becomes suspect no 1.

The detective investigating the case is boorish, abrupt & holds a grudge against Charlie so he’s all too ready to suspect his girlfriend of murder. However, Karen isn’t the only one with a motive for killing Lone Wolf. There’s the beautiful woman who bails him up in a bar just days before his murder & hits him so hard he falls down. There’s the student he threatened to fail who may then lose the scholarship he is relying on to stay at school. Then, when it turns out that Lone Wolf may not have been all he seemed, more suspects & motives are revealed. Karen gets involved in investigating the murder with the help of Charlie’s partner, Sergeant Felicity Schultz, currently on maternity leave. On top of all this, Karen’s daughter, Amanda, is travelling in Tibet & frequently uncontactable & her sister, Connie, suddenly appears with their frail mother & demands Karen take care of her while she goes on a management course.

Karen is a very likeable detective & I love the fact that she’s an English professor. Previous books in the series have focussed more on literature than this one does (although Karen quotes Emily Dickinson several times) & Karen’s researches into Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, a Grace Metalious-like popular author & American crime writers have featured in previous books in the series. Joanne Dobson’s books remind me of Amanda Cross’s terrific mystery series with feminist academic Kate Fansler. Death without Tenure is a satire on academic political correctness. It’s a wonderful picture of an institution trying to be so politically correct that true justice & common sense fly right out the window.

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