Footfall – Christine Poulson


Cassandra James is shocked when her friend, retired academic Una Carwardine, is found dead in her home. She’s horrified to discover that Una had been thrown down a staircase by an intruder. When Cassandra is told that the strange, silent phone call she received on a chaotic evening was Una’s last call, she is determined to find out why Una rang her & what she wanted her to do.She also feels guilty that her increasingly busy life – head of the English Department at St Etheldreda’s, life with Stephen & their daughter, Grace, & work on her book – had meant that she saw Una much less often than she had in the past.

Una & her husband were academics specialising in 19th century literature, Cassandra’s own field. Cassandra is spending her study leave writing a book, using the collection of the Cambridge Literary & Philosophical Institute (usually known as the Lit & Phil). She’s surprised & honoured to be invited to join the Institute’s Board by head librarian, Giles Brayfield. Una had planned to leave her vast & valuable collection of 19th century literature to the Institute along with a bequest that would enable the Board to buy back the lease on a prominently sited building that they desperately need for storage & as a way of raising the Institute’s profile. Giles is determined to drag the Institute & its collection into the modern age – putting the catalogue online is just the beginning – but there’s a shock in store when Una’s will is read & the bequest is instead left to St Ethedreda’s. Then, as the lawyers delve into Una’s estate, the money to store the collection is missing. Una seems to have spent over half a million pounds in the last months of her life. How could she have spent so much money & what did she buy?

Footfall is a terrifically twisty murder mystery & I’m only sorry that it’s the last in the Cassandra James series. As always, I loved the setting – academic Cambridge with its libraries, bookshops & impoverished students trying to make ends meet. Bookselling, especially the rare book trade, is brought into the story by Cassandra’s meeting with Giles Brayfield’s friend, Eileen Burnham. Eileen tempts Cassandra with copies of the 19th century sensation novels she loves & also gives her some vital clues about what Una was up to at the end of her life. Cassandra’s personal life is also as complicated as ever. Stephen catches chicken pox & takes Grace off to visit his sister in Devon while he recuperates, leaving Cassandra at a loose end, revelling in the freedom of being on her own but also anxious & a little bereft. There’s more than enough to make Cassandra anxious. Apart from Una’s death & the mystery of her estate, odd things have been happening at Grace’s nursery – objects appearing & disappearing. Then, there’s a woman posing as Cassandra, copying her hairstyle & even sitting at her desk at the Lit & Phil. What could her motive be & could she have any connection with Una’s death? Then, there are Cassandra’s unresolved feelings for Superintendent Jim Ferguson. Jim is investigating Una’s death & Cassandra is drawn into the investigation not only because of her relationship with Una but because of her knowledge of books.

The many subplots keep the action moving along & Cassandra’s frantic juggling of work, motherhood & marriage rings true. Even the infrequent moments of calm when she can concentrate on her book are haunted by a looming deadline & the thought of the work waiting for her at St Etheldreda’s at the end of her study leave. All in all, this is a very enjoyable series. I definitely won’t be waiting another 15 years to reread it. I now have them all safely on my Kindle so I can revisit Cambridge & Cassandra whenever I need a dose of academic mystery.

Murder is Academic – Christine Poulson


I love a mystery set in academia. Even a mystery set in the town of Oxford or Cambridge will do. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Veronica Stallwood’s Kate Ivory, Jill Paton Walsh’s Imogen Quy,  Amanda Cross’ Kate Fansler &, of course, Gaudy Night, are all favourites. After reading Christine Poulson’s latest novel, Deep Water, I remembered how much I’d loved her three novels set in Cambridge featuring academic & Victorian literature specialist Cassandra James. Published in the early 2000s, I’d borrowed them from my library. No longer in print, fortunately all three (Murder is Academic (aka Dead Letters), Stage Fright & Footfall) are available as eBooks.

When Cassandra James visits the Head of her Department, Margaret Joplin, she’s shocked to find exam papers blowing around the back garden. Then, she discovers Margaret’s body in the swimming pool. What looks like a tragic accident soon becomes problematic when Cassandra discovers letters that show that Margaret had been having an affair with a student, a young woman who had died a few months earlier in a climbing accident. Could Margaret’s husband, Malcolm, have discovered the affair? Lucy’s letters to Margaret were passionate & Lucy was increasingly intent on bringing their relationship out into the open. The scandal would have ruined Margaret’s career & her marriage as well as putting the future of St Etheldreda’s College at risk. What if Lucy’s death wasn’t an accident? Could Margaret have committed suicide from grief or remorse?

Cassandra is appointed acting Head of the English Department after Margaret’s death. Master of the College, Lawrence, warns Cassandra that unless she & her colleagues can come up with an impressive research & publishing program, the future of the college itself is threatened. Cassandra’s book on Victorian poetry is almost finished & Margaret had been working on a book as well. However, the other lecturers, Merfyn, Alison & Aiden, had published little & their jobs were most definitely on the line. Cassandra’s doubts about Margaret’s death & her knowledge of her affair with Lucy, would be dynamite to the tabloids if the knowledge became public & Lawrence wants no scandal. Cassandra has quite enough to do with her increased workload & she tries to put her doubts aside. Apart from anything else, she discovers that she’s pregnant &, although she is soon happy about the baby, she’s unsure how serious she wants her relationship with her partner Stephen to become. Another student, Rebecca, hints to Cassandra that she knows about Margaret’s affair & threatens to go public unless her sub-standard work is passed. When Rebecca is attacked & left in a coma soon afterwards, Cassandra knows that someone wanted to silence her & that Margaret was murdered. All the academics have tangled personal lives & something to hide but did any of their secrets include murder?

… what if I was writing a book about this, about what’s been happening over the last eight months or so? That startling idea seemed to bring things into focus. Well, what would I do? Exactly what I did when I was researching my academic books. I wouldn’t take anything for granted, I wouldn’t rely on anything anyone told me unless there was evidence to back it up; I’d go right back to the beginning – further probably than anyone else had thought necessary – and work my way forward, casting my net as wide as I could. And all along I’d be weighing the evidence, looking for the connections and patterns, piecing together a picture…

I loved this book just as much the second time around. As the first time was nearly 15 years ago, I’d forgotten everything about the plot & suspected the wrong person almost until the end, just as I probably did back in 2002.As always, Christine Poulson’s sense of place is atmospheric. Cassandra lives in The Old Granary, a lonely house with its share of odd noises & things that go bump in the night as well as housing too many books & a cat called Bill Bailey. Cassandra’s reluctance to commit to Stephen has as much to do with her desire to keep her life in neat compartments as it does with her feeling that, after two failed marriages, she should be wary about any new relationship. I enjoyed the academic atmosphere, Cassandra’s researches in newspaper archives & libraries & a particularly spooky trip to the site of Lucy’s death. There are also some very funny moments, including a séance where one of Cassandra’s colleagues claims to be receiving literary advice from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Finally, how could I resist a heroine who loves my favourite quote?

What was it that Logan Pearsall Smith wrote? ‘People say life is the thing but I prefer reading,’ I often think that should be my motto.

I could almost think that I’d somehow remembered this when I came to start my blog but I don’t think so although I can’t remember where I did first read it. One of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems (which I posted about the other day in Sunday Poetry) is also quoted near the end of the book. If you enjoy academic mysteries, download a sample of Murder is Academic. I guarantee you won’t want to stop reading. More information about the series can be found on Christine’s website.

Christine has posted a list of books (not just mysteries) set in universities here & so has Moira from the blog Clothes in Books here. I like the sound of the Emma Lathen & have downloaded a sample as I’ve never read her books.