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The Charles Dickens Murders: A Beth Austin Mystery

The Charles Dickens Murders: A Beth Austin Mystery

by Edith Skom
It was the best of times. It was the worst of crimes.

On a sweltering summer night, a woman dies mysteriously in her hospital bed in New York City. A thousand miles away, amateur sleuth and Midwestern University professor Beth Austin prepares for a class on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, when her mother drops a bombshell: Fifty years ago, she was involved in


It was the best of times. It was the worst of crimes.

On a sweltering summer night, a woman dies mysteriously in her hospital bed in New York City. A thousand miles away, amateur sleuth and Midwestern University professor Beth Austin prepares for a class on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, when her mother drops a bombshell: Fifty years ago, she was involved in a similar Dickensian love triangle and unsolved murder at the University of Chicago.

As Beth soon discovers, it's the stuff of great fiction. A gorgeous coed was killed, no suspect was found, and her mother's once-tight college clique dissolved. Each had a motive for murder, now concealed in a morass of lies. Then the killer strikes again in New York, half a century later. Now Beth must re-create the scene of the crime to see if, as in Bleak House, beauty is its own punishment. To learn what her own mother cannot, or will not, tell her. And to risk her own life as the killer, determined to keep old secrets buried, prepares to strike again. . . .

Editorial Reviews

Marilyn Stasio
[A] smartly plotted whodunit. . . .a lively and affectionate picture of dorm life in an earlier but hardly innocent generation. —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Midwestern University English prof Beth Austin takes her third crack at solving a murder case (after The George Eliot Murders, 1995), again mining a literary classic for clues. This time, her mother's collegiate past and two Dickens tales, Bleak House and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, provide the murder and the template respectively. Beth's mother, Laurie, discloses that, during her college stay at the same university in the late 1940s, there was a scandalous love triangle and an unsolved murder. Her account takes Beth--and readers--back to Dall Hall, a girl's dorm, and the friends there known as the Fourth Floor Gang. The girls' camaraderie is fractured by suspicions rising from some petty thefts; it is then destroyed when one of them is shot to death. Beth is fascinated enough by the story and her mother's observation that "the murder was never solved--and it never will be" to try her hand at unraveling the puzzle, tracking down the women the girls have become and resurrecting the past. Beth learns of the recent death in Manhattan of a Fourth Floor Gang member, which starts her on another, more immediate investigation. In a final scene, Beth assembles the friends and some of their associates to lead them to the answers of a number of questions that have infiltrated their present lives from their shared past. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
Long before Prof. Beth Austin (English/Midwestern Univ.) was born, her mother Laurie shared the 4th floor of the University of Chicago's Dallworthy Hall with a truly toxic group of young ladies. Dewey Conner, daughter of famously vicious columnist Cob Conner, had attracted a group of hangers-on of both sexes who never should have been graduated from nursery school—-from brilliant Louise Hallman to prickly Em Greenberg to luscious Jill Jansen to Abe Lowenstein, Laurie's beau (and another's), to a drop-in lover who called himself Evil. All the usual jealousies concerning school, clothes, and men were brought to a boil by a series of petty thefts, and finally by Dewey's departure under a cloud of suspicion. But instead of breathing a sigh of relief, Dall Hall should have been bracing for murder. Now that she's pried the story out of her mother, Beth (The George Eliot Murders) is naturally determined to solve the mystery, even if it means neglecting her work, traipsing around asking pointed questions (which the suspects unfailingly answer fully and frankly), and sitting through dozens of memories of Bleak House, which, though not particularly relevant to the riddle at hand, emerges as strikingly more modern than does the world in which an unchivalrous male "deserted my mother to neck with Jill."

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Beth Austin Mysteries Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.17(w) x 6.88(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt


Manhattan Hospital Intensive Care Unit Early August--the present

At night the ICU dropped its daytime hustle for a quieter, more passive  personality.

No distraught families waiting in the corridor to talk with the doctor.  No clusters of attendings, residents, and medical students on rounds,  making their slow march in and out of patients' rooms.

The very emptiness highlighted objects that usually receded into the  background.

Now one's eyes were drawn to the mirrors, like huge silver bowls, that  hung at intervals from the ceiling, there to prevent an around-the-corner  collision between a linen cart and a trauma team.

Now one noticed the rough-lettered sign at the nursing  station--REMEMBER!  SIGN OUT YOUR PATIENT'S NARCOTICS ASAP!!--and  above it the monitor, its  continuous display of moving lines showing the electrical impulses of each  patient's heart. The symmetrical red rows of peaks and valleys stood out  boldly against the black of the monitor screen. At night, the watcher,  drawn to the screen, was inclined to feel uneasy, almost breathless,  fearful of peaks that suddenly inverted, of valleys that suddenly peaked,  of a sudden conversion from a neat pattern to wild scribbling, or a sudden  collapse into a futile straight line--changes that triggered triple beeps  or Klaxon honks.

At night one could hear the sounds of silence--the compression and  release of ventilators that breathed for some patients, the soft sighs of  patients who could breathe on their own, the muted conversation from the  lounge, where the staff had gathered to watch Letterman.

At night one looked more closely at the patients' rooms that lined the  corridor. With their glass-windowed sliding doors, they resembled the  compartments of a European train--a train that one could enter  unobserved.

The head nurse, alone at the station, picked up the phone and called  X-ray. "Hey! You were supposed to be here half an hour ago. . . . Well,  speed it up!" Then, with an occasional glance at the monitor, she resumed  writing progress notes and nibbled popcorn.

Unseen in the conference room, watching the nurse as she wrote her notes,  was someone wearing a gray lab coat, a stethoscope protruding from a  pocket. How much of life is based on trust, the person was thinking. Trust  that the driver of the oncoming car would stop at the red light. Trust  that the uniformed man really was there to read the meter. Trust that a  lab coat, with stethoscope, automatically entitled its wearer entry to any  hospital floor. Suddenly, from a far room came a high whine. Labcoat  watched closely as the nurse went to replace a near-empty IV bottle. Once  the nurse was out of sight, Labcoat rushed out of the conference room and  entered a room at the near end of the corridor.

Quickly drawing the curtains over the windows, Labcoat turned to scan the  room. Below the bed a network of hoses led to oxygen, suction, dialysis  units, and other life-preserving devices. Above the bed the hanging metal  apparatus for the intravenous looked like two hoses. Two IV's--that was  convenient.

On the bed the patient lay sleeping, her hair, the pure white of a former  blond, straggled over the pillow. The sheet clung to the long thin  body.

Labcoat stood watching the patient.

Slowly, her eyes opened. She gave a sigh, looked up, saw Labcoat--and  stared. "But I--you--" Mumbling something that sounded like "Can't talk,"  she gestured for water and was handed a glass with a straw. She drank  eagerly. "But I know you--you're--"

"Shh"--lightly a finger was put over her mouth--"you don't want to wake  anyone."

"Hell, I don't care. Then it's night?"


"I'm so upset--thought it was daytime." She lay there, looking up. "So  many years. Where have you been?"

"You've kept busy, Dewey. Your book--"

Her hands clutched the sheet. "The collection?"

"I found it--enthralling."

Warily--"You read it?"

"There's something the matter with your IV. Let me fix it."

"Oh"--less wary now--"you work here?"


"Didn't know--so confused--so upset."

Out of a lab-coat pocket came a syringe. In one smooth movement, the  syringe was injected into the IV plug. A split second later the color  drained from the patient's face. Her eyes rolled upward, her head fell  back.

Instantly the Unit was hit with an earsplitting blast of warning  beeps.

Yelling "Code Blue," Labcoat raced out of the room and almost collided  with an X-ray cart. The X-ray tech hardly noticed. The loudspeaker was  announcing "Code Blue--7152," and all hell had broken loose.

"How long has it been?" said the chief resident.

The nurse checked her notes. "Four and a half minutes."

"Let's shock her one more time."

The nurse put the defibrillator paddles against the chest. An electric  shock went into the heart. Dewey's body arched, almost jolting off the  bed.

There must have been twenty people in the room by this time--all staring  glumly at the monitor.

Still a straight line.

"Oh shit," said the chief resident. "It's hopeless. Might as well stop.  Probably brain dead now."

At the nursing station, the chief resident was saying, "Know who she  was?"


"Cob Conner's daughter."

"Who's Cob Conner?" said the medical student.

"Forget it. Someone has to notify the family. Get the chart."

In Dewey's room, the aides had removed the tubes, the catheter, the EKG  leads. They had cleaned the body and wrapped it in a sheet. Now the crew  came in to clean the room. They emptied the wastebaskets and were about to  toss the EKG strips when the resident came back to the room.

"No," he said. "Save that."

He stood, threading the long EKG strips through his fingers. Strange, he  thought. Why were the T-waves so peaked just before she died? Well, maybe  tissue necrosis. But I want a post.

Labcoat, in street clothes now, stood on Fifth Avenue and hailed a cab.

Meet the Author

Edith Skom is the acclaimed author of The Mark Twain Murders and The George Eliot Murders and has been nominated for the Agatha, the Macavity, and the Anthony awards. She lives outside Chicago, where she is a lecturer at Northwestern University.

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