Past Tense (Joel Williams 3) by Margot Kinberg

The sins of the past…

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past tenseWhen the foundations are being dug for a new performing arts building at Tilton Univerity in Pennsylvania, the building crew are shocked when they discover a skeleton buried there. Forensic tests show that it belonged to a young man and dates from around forty years earlier. Back in the early ’70s, Bryan Roades was a student at the University. Inspired by the great Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate affair, Bryan hoped to emulate them by becoming a campaigning journalist. He was preparing a story on women’s issues for the University newspaper, focusing on the Women’s Lib movement and how some of the debates of the time were impacting on the female students. Some of the people he approached, though, didn’t want to see their stories in print, but Bryan was more interested in the greater good (and his own advancement, perhaps) than in individuals’ rights to privacy. When he disappeared, the police could find no trace and most people thought he’d simply done that fashionable thing for the time – gone off to ‘find himself’…

This is Margot Kinberg’s third Joel Williams book, but the first I’ve read. Regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.

Joel Williams is an ex-police detective now working as a Professor in Criminal Justice in the fictional university town of Tilton, PA. He still has lots of contacts with his old colleagues in the police department and can’t resist using his inside knowledge of the University when a corpse turns up on campus. But he’s not one of these mavericks who works it all out on his own – we also see the police procedural side of the case through the two detectives who are investigating it, and Joel promptly hands over to them any information he finds. I like this way of handling the ‘amateur detective’ aspect – too often, the reasons for amateur involvement stretch credibility too far, and many authors fall into the cliché of having to make the police look stupid in order to make the amateur look good. But here Joel’s investigation enhances the police one rather than detracting from it.

As someone who is tired to death of the drunken, dysfunctional, angst-ridden detective of fiction, I also greatly appreciated Joel’s normality and stability. He has a job that he enjoys and is good at, he stays sober throughout and has a happy marriage. But he also has a curious mind, especially when it comes to crime, and an empathetic understanding of the people he comes across in the course of his investigation.

margot-kinberg
Margot Kinberg

The small-town setting and the rather closed society of the University within it gives that feeling of everyone knowing everyone else’s business – a setting where privacy is harder to come by than in the anonymity of a big city, and is more treasured for that very reason. Kinberg uses this well to show how people feel threatened when it looks like things they’d rather stay secret might be about to come into the open. The time period adds to this too, and Kinberg makes excellent use of the changes we’ve seen in society over the intervening period – many of the things people were concerned about being revealed back in the ’70s don’t seem like such big scandals today, but could have destroyed careers and even lives back then. And as we learn more about the people Bryan was proposing to write about in his article, the pool of people who may have been willing to take drastic action to stop him grows…

In style, the book mirrors the Golden Age crime – a limited group of suspects, clues, red herrings, amateur detective, etc. And, of course, the second murder! But it also has strong elements of the police procedural, with the two detectives, Crandall and Zuniga, sharing almost equal billing with Joel. There’s a little too much grit in the story for it to fall into ‘cosy’ territory but, thankfully, it also steers clear of the gratuitously gruesome or graphic. I’m not sure how well it will work for people who enjoy the darker, more brutal side of crime fiction, but an intriguing and interesting story for those who prefer the traditional mystery novel. Just my kind of thing, in fact, and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended – and well done, Margot!

NB I won a signed copy of the book in Margot’s competition. Aren’t I lucky? 😀

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In a Word: Murder – An Anthology edited by Margot Kinberg

Writers red in tooth and claw…

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I have a hard and fast, unbreakable, cast-iron rule that I do not, under any circumstances whatsoever, review books written by people I know, because the review will inevitably be biased. Fortunately, since it’s my rule, I can ignore it whenever I choose. 😉

So when I heard that my blogging buddy Margot Kinberg from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist had edited an anthology of crime stories, and that it also included a story from another blogger I occasionally chat with, Sarah Ward from Crimepieces, AND that it was for an excellent cause…well, it seemed like the appropriate moment for my first ever…

Blatantly Biased Review

 

in a wordIn a Word: Murder is an anthology of short stories on the theme of authors and publishers. The book is dedicated to the memory of Maxine Clarke and proceeds from sales will go in aid of the Princess Alice Hospice, which cares for people with cancer and other illnesses living in a large part of Surrey, south west London and Middlesex. I never got to know Maxine but I hadn’t been blogging for long before I became aware of the impact she had had on the crime fiction blogging community under her blogging name, Petrona. So much so that there is a blog (Petrona Remembered) specifically set up in her memory and an annual Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English. Many crime bloggers speak of her often, with great affection, and credit her with introducing them to Scandi crime.

But what of the anthology itself? Well, in my totally biased opinion, this is a real fun collection. Ranging from very short to reasonably long, each story concentrates on the (hopefully fictional) lengths writers and publishers, and in one case musicians, will go to get their works in front of the public. (In fact, after reading these stories, I was frankly too scared not to review the book…)

Maxine Clarke (www.petronaremembered.com)
Maxine Clarke
petronaremembered.com

Margot herself has contributed two fine stories – one featuring Joel Williams, the detective who appears in her books, and the other a standalone with a blackly humorous twist about what happens when the author/publisher relationship breaks down (I’m hoping it’s not autobiographical). Sarah’s story is great fun, involving French cafés, omelettes, wine, books, mystery, humour and a little touch of romance – my dream evening in fact.

Other contributions range from light to very dark, providing plenty of variety and contrast. Amongst the authors I don’t know, the standout for me was Martin Edwards’ story The Killing of Captain Hastings – blogging, crime writing festivals and an author who writes ‘cosy’ crime about a detective who loves cats. Funny and with a lot of affectionate ribbing of the world of books and self-promotion, this made me want to go to the next Whitby Fictionfest…

“She’d already attracted admiring glances from the local author of a fantasy in which vampires rampage across the North Yorkshire Moors, as well as a literary agent from London whom she’d never seen sober, and a couple of disreputable-looking sci-fi writers.”

Buy it because it’s in a good cause…then read it because it’s good fun! Highly recommended!

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