From The Record, June 2nd, 2017
First, I must admit that I am not a fan of murder mysteries. I look aghast at people who proudly own to having read the entire Agatha Christie oeuvre, or who chuckle happily at the appearance of the latest Harry Hole! For me this genre has unfortunate formulaic proclivities. However, I’ll grudgingly admit that I do see the appeal, for a good mystery is like a good joke (I am very partial to the latter). In effect, they both play on different levels of understanding, ranging from benighted to enlightened.
So, by my standards, Jim Napier’s Legacy—his first attempt at crime fiction—is a great success. It contrives a seamless and believable sequence of events which evolve from incomprehensible to resoundingly understandable. And the chief architect of this understanding is the main character, Detective Inspector Colin McDermott.
We are introduced to the victim [S. B.]through a series of chronological snapshots. Enigmatically presented, they initiate the sequence of events which see her meet her untimely demise beneath the wheels of a bus near her newly adopted university, St. Gregory’s College (part of University of London).
From the outset we divine that she is not a typical undergraduate. Well-dressed, sophisticated, and somewhat guarded, she recognizes one of her lecturers from a previous life and writes a cryptic note which seems (we later discover) to precipitate drastic consequences. The puzzle is that when she meets her death, we, as readers, are not immediately sure if it is in fact her, or whether the death is a simple misfortune, or the result of carelessness. Or, perhaps, the result of evil forces….
Shift to the interior of St. Greg’s at the start of term. The scenes depicted, especially in the Common Room and the Porter’s Lodge, are the stuff of such academic satirists as Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Richard Russo. Napier’s familiarity with the academic milieu (the Bishop’s/Champlain community) no doubt informs some of his deft characterisations.
A rum lot, to be sure. There is the harried and calculating principal, Norman Anscombe, who is on the verge of retiring and trying to arrange for the smooth appointment of a worthy successor. There is the valetudinarian and ferret-like Ewart Griffith-Jones (English and Celtic literature) who is the most heavily medicated faculty member one is likely to encounter anywhere; the sharply perceptive and jaundiced Clarissa Soames, M.A., (Professor of Classics) who wears a lean and hungry look; the obnoxiously extraverted Hugh Fraser Campbell (Lecturer in Politics and History); the high-living and desperately conniving Miles Burton-Strachey ; the almost too gay gay person, the louche and affected Jeremy Asquith (Lecturer in Romance Languages and Literature); the sharp-tongued, misogynistic Sidney Westgate (Religion) and finally the éminence grise, Professor J.K. S. Boothroyd (Art History).
Detective McDermott must contemplate all these personages in his alma mater (yes, he is a St.Greg’s Old Boy), and it rapidly occurs to the reader that this rogues’ gallery of odd faculty should be taken (A) as a pool for possible candidates for the principal’s job, and (B) a pool for possible murder suspects. The plot thickens when a faculty member attempts to blackmail another and is also rendered quite dead! There is a not-so-old expression to the effect that ““The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low…” Well, in Napier’s Legacy the politics of the university strip away considerable quantities of veneer as we find ourselves in the contemplation of philanderers, frauds, dope dealers, dissemblers, and possible wife-murderers!
An intriguing aspect of murder mysteries is the way in which the authors manipulate irony. Not necessarily situational irony (cf. Alanis Morissette), but ironic perspective. It is the type of irony you encounter when you know something that someone else doesn’t. For example, in mysteries typically the narrator will cosy up to the perpetrator and give the audience a bird’s-eye view of a crime which then baffles police. Or perhaps a Sherlock Holmes will size up baffling bits of information and hit the reader with an “elementary-my-dear-Watson” moment.
One particularly compelling aspect of Legacy is that at several points the reader—the attentive reader—tantalisingly has the upper hand over McDermott and his colleagues. Thanks to narrative perspective we see glimpses of the victim’s early life. We see her penning the very disruptive note. We see the fallout and effectively anticipate some of Mc Dermott’s lines of inquiry. Then, later, we share in his perplexity as one lead after another takes him to a dead-end…. Once the scales fall from McDermott’s eyes, we wait in comparative bemusement for a final “dear-Watson” moment. So, all in all, the reader is always kept on high alert!
The novel is very much of our times. Napier doesn’t make much of it in the early going, but issues of gender identity and politics first circle at a distance and finally come close to the heart of the matter. Young Detective Constable Wilhelmina (Willie?) Quinn confronts the old-school “By-gaw-’ee-were-a-rum’un-Guv” Sergeant George Ridley who takes some convincing that a “wopsie” will be able to contribute to the case. In the Common Room there is a decided chill in the air when the only female faculty member Clarissa Soames is present. McDermott’s daughter has a female friend whose “coming out” precipitates a family crisis and attempted suicide. Finally, troubled gender relations have more than a little to do with the outcome…. But I’ll say no more.
Overall, this is a delightful contribution to the genre. Napier shows himself to be a compelling story-teller, providing background incidentals that at once set the scene, establish a mood, and provide clues. McDermott gradually assumes full three-dimensionality as the story progresses. Somewhat hang-doggedly attractive, he has trouble making commitments. His wife perished in the bus bombings in London in 2005. He is devoted to his daughter and he struggles to balance his job with his commitment to her. At times, not surprisingly, our narrator waxes philosophical. Here is a typical passage from the scene of S.B.’s funeral:
“McDermott took it all in, thinking of his own wife’s sudden death, ironically, on a London bus not far from where S**** had died. We make plans under the illusion that we’re in control of our lives, then fate takes a hand and we have to start over.
“A few minutes later, in a chill wind on a bleak day, an anonymous vicar delivered a generic eulogy over the remains of a person he had never met, in a small chapel made to seem larger by the paucity of mourners in attendance. “
Legacy, a Colin McDermott mystery, is now available in the Lennoxville library, at fine bookstores near you, and on Kindle and other e-readers.
Jim Napier was a professor at Champlain College and denizen of Lennoxville, and he contributed reviews to The Record for many years. He has produced hundreds of reviews, interviews, and articles on crime fiction and is currently embarked on the next novel in the Colin McDermott series.