The Charles Dickens Murders

Overview

On a sweltering summer night, a woman is murdered in her hospital bed in New York City. Almost a thousand miles away, Midwestern University professor Beth Austin is leading a class through the major works of Charles Dickens. The framework that connects this tale of two cities unfolds when Beth learns from her mother that a savage crime was committed a generation ago when her mother was a University of Chicago student - a crime that changed her life forever. Beth is disturbed by her mother's story of painful lies ...
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1998 Hard cover New in new dust jacket. Absolutely new! Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 304 p. Audience: General/trade.

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Overview

On a sweltering summer night, a woman is murdered in her hospital bed in New York City. Almost a thousand miles away, Midwestern University professor Beth Austin is leading a class through the major works of Charles Dickens. The framework that connects this tale of two cities unfolds when Beth learns from her mother that a savage crime was committed a generation ago when her mother was a University of Chicago student - a crime that changed her life forever. Beth is disturbed by her mother's story of painful lies and secrets - most of all, by the unsolved murder. Determined to find the truth, she slips back into the past, reliving college days of friendship and romance, while in the dark present, the murderer, still at large, follows her progress - ready to kill again.
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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.)
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
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."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385312301
  • Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/10/1998
  • Series: Beth Austin Series
  • Pages: 295
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.57 (h) x 1.03 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

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 moreclosely 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?"

"Yes."

"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?"

"Yes."

"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?"

"Who?"

"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.
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