RHAPSODY IN RED: A Preston Barclay Mystery
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Mystery lovers, especially those who like their murders set in academia, will welcome Donn Taylor’s RHAPSODY IN RED, the kickoff to what hopefully will become a new series. Plenty of humor, some quirky touches and an interesting female suspect and colleague make this a satisfying read.
Taylor’s protagonist, Preston Barclay, is a recent widower who teaches history at Overton University but without tenure (which keeps tension over his job security always behind the scenes). He is in a comfortable rut and happy to be there. Since his wife’s death from cancer, he has suffered from musical hallucinations that provide an unusual soundtrack for every scene.
When religious studies professor Mara Thorn and Preston discover a murdered lesbian colleague, Laila Sloan, it sets either of them up as a possible murderer. Worse yet, one of the police officers, Captain Clyde Staggart, has it in for Preston and hopes to pin the murder on him. In self-defense, the two professors team up to discover the facts for themselves, which provide many anxious moments and narrow escapes. Soon, they’ve uncovered secrets about the past lives of five of their university colleagues, any of whom may have committed murder.
Taylor does a good job keeping the reader turning the pages, incorporating a hook at the end of each chapter that makes the reader want to keep forging ahead. Occasionally he overuses similes (“Press, trouble finds you like male mosquitoes find a blonde in a bikini”), but many of these are fresh, despite the overuse. There’s a requisite chase scene with bad guys brandishing pistols, but Taylor has a number of interestingly different themes for a Christian murder mystery novel. Mara, a religious studies professor, is a Christian turned likable Wiccan and has practiced that religion in some form for the past 15 years. Taylor presents her and her religion in an even-handed, factual way, even as she reconsiders her choice and recounts her disillusionment with Wicca in later chapters. Preston is struggling to find his way back to the faith with which he has grown disillusioned since his wife’s death, but unlike some Christian novels, this is not the primary focus.
The musical hallucinations are adeptly handled by Taylor and add an interesting “soundtrack” to the plot line. “This internal music makes my life like living in a movie that some insane editor has mismatched with the music score from another,” says Preston. We learn in the story that musical geniuses Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann also suffered from musical hallucinations, an interesting tidbit.
Readers familiar with Christian colleges or nominally Christian colleges will likely recognize some of the tensions that Overton University deals with. Pressure toward diversity and secularization (as with hiring Mara, the Wiccan, to teach comparative religion) and a desire to increase enrollment can make strange bedfellows in professor choices and class offerings. The cast of characters at the college also should be universally recognizable, from the Dean, Dean Billig (“Dean-Dean”) in his power suit and high-pitched voice, to President J. Cleveland Cantwell, who talks with capital letters (“We wanted you to understand the Full Implications of further Unfavorable Publicity”), to the sexy physical education instructor, Brenda Kirsch.
The ending is satisfying and surprising. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series for the engaging professor Preston Barclay.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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