In classic noir tradition, English Professor Karen Pelletier gains a client when her office door opens and a famous Private Eye novelist enters. The author is dogged by Trouble (a Rottweiler) and by a problem. And since Sunnye Hardcastle (a Patricia Cornwell lookalike) will be a featured speaker in the English Department's upcoming conference on the murder mystery (from a Feminist Perspective), Karen is intrigued.
The next thing you know, one midnight someone rushes out of the Enfield library with an armload of rare books. In fact, the library is missing a truckload of its treasures. Then a suspect is found dead in the stacks, his neck broken. With a real private eye on the case, the hunt is onfor the manuscript of Hammett's famous novel, The Maltese Falcon, for the missing books, and for potential murder suspects.
A sparkling fifth entry in an award-nominated series by Fordham University professor Joanne Dobson riffs the hardboiled genre and several sacred icons. What is truth? What is fiction? No one seems certain. Perhaps most frustrated is Karen's boyfriend, Massachusetts police lieutenant Charlie Piotrowski, a man having trouble dividing his personal and professional life, let alone translating modern academic-speak. But then, don't we all?
Joanne Dobson is the author of Quieter Than Sleep, The Northbury Papers, The Raven and the Nightingale, and Cold and Pure and Very Dead.
About the Author
Joanne Dobson teaches English at Fordham University. Her first Professor Karen Pelletier academic mystery was an Agatha nominee. She and her husband live in the New York City area and have three grown children.
Read an Excerpt
The Maltese Manuscript
By Joanne Dobson
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2003 Joanne Dobson
All rights reserved.
The door to my office opened, and a dame walked in, bringing Trouble with her. The dame was Sunnye Hardcastle, celebrated crime novelist, and Trouble was her dog, a big Rottweiler with teeth like boning knives. I recognized them both from the author photo on the back cover of Tough Times, the latest novel in Hardcastle's edgy Kit Danger series. I'd purchased the book a week earlier at Smith's Bookshop, but hadn't had time to do more than look over the jacket.
My class notes went flying as I jumped up from the green vinyl chair. "Sunnye Hardcastle?" Ms. Hardcastle was tall with red hair in a modified poodle cut, tight curls trimmed close to the head. She was in her fifties and fit, with a runner's sinewy slenderness. She wore leggings and a black leather jacket cut close to the body, and Trouble dogged her heels, kept up short on a wide leather strap.
"Yes. And you're Professor Karen Pelletier." The writer's eyes were dark and opaque, her eyeliner a gunmetal grey. "Or so the secretary said." Monica Cassale, the Enfield College English Department secretary, hovered in the hallway, mouth agape. She was a big Hardcastle fan.
"Right. I mean, yes, I am." I pushed the door. It didn't quite shut. "Won't you sit down, Ms. Hardcastle?" I gestured toward the chair I had just vacated, and when she glanced at it and hesitated, I snatched up the scrawled-over class notes and deposited them in a clump on my desk. Sunnye Hard castle graced the green chair with a visceral glamour the likes of which this office had never before seen. Her large leather shoulder bag rested next to the chair, within easy reach; rumor had it Hardcastle didn't go anywhere without carrying a weapon. Trouble lay at her feet. His muzzle rested on one heavy-soled leather boot. His vigilant brown eyes assessed me.
Good dog, I thought. Stay.
"I hope you don't mind me dropping in like this, without notice." The writer fixed me with her dark unsmiling gaze. It didn't much matter whether I minded or not; she was there. She let go of the Rottweiler's leash, laying it loosely across her lap. Trouble glared at me. A rumble emanated from a region deep in his throat. Vladimir Litvintsev, my linguistics colleague down the hall, would have called that sound a glottal rumble. The dog's owner didn't seem to hear it.
"Not at all." I ventured a sidelong glance at Trouble. Stay! "Sorry if I seemed rude, Ms. Hardcastle, but you're the last person I would have expected to see here." I made an all- encompassing sweep with my hand, signifying the plush encapsulated milieu of privilege that is Enfield College. She took my gesture as an invitation to scrutinize the room.
My office was spacious and professorial in the conventional manner, book-laden and a bit shabby. Floor-to-ceiling book cases on two walls. A recessed seat beneath leaded casement windows. A large oak desk with an antique wooden swivel chair I avoided whenever possible. A matching conference table. Polished wood floors half-covered by a green needle point rug. All these glories had been bequeathed me by previous occupants going back to the 1830s when Dickinson Hall was erected. Nothing individual. Nothing mine — except for the life-sized black-and-white Humphrey Bogart poster plastered to the back of the door. Nonetheless, I inhabited the room comfortably. It was a Professor's office. I was a Professor. I was anything but complacent about that fact.
"I was in the area," Sunnye Hardcastle said, her gaze migrating back in my direction. "Book tour. I stopped by on an impulse because I wanted to talk to you." She glanced down at her fingernails. They were short and rounded, paint ed the bright red of heart's blood.
"To me?" What could this world-renowned crime novelist want with an English professor? From across the hallway I heard the English Department office door slam shut, then click as the key turned in the lock. Footsteps vanished down the hallway. I checked my watch. 2:07. Why was Monica leaving so early when her idol was within arm's reach?
The writer gave a short laugh. It was not what I would describe as a particularly joyous sound. "On my way to Boston I was looking over the preliminary program for a crime fiction conference I've been invited to appear at here in ... when is it? March?"
"Oh," I said. "The Women's Studies conference."
"That's right — Women's Studies." The words did not roll off her tongue with the familiarity of use.
"Are you planning to attend?" Sunnye Hardcastle's partici pation would be a coup for the conference organizers.
"I'm thinking about it." As if it were of no import, she flicked away her possible appearance with the tips of her bright red nails. "But when I saw the topic of your talk, I told the driver to take a detour to Enfield."
The bell rang to announce the changing of classes. Ms. Hard castle broke off and looked out the window.
It was mid-January, the first day of the spring semester. Students hurried by in noisy clumps on their way to classes: American Ethnic Literatures, Principles of a Pluralistic Polity, Great Books by Women. The weather was grey and mushy, and a girl in a red plaid jacket picked her way carefully around a big puddle just outside my window. L. L. Bean boots are expensive. No sense in getting them wet.
Then Peggy Briggs trudged by, plowing right through the center of the puddle in her K-Mart duck boots, weighed down by a canvas backpack that looked like Viet-Nam-era Army surplus. Peggy was a "mature student," the administration's designation for anyone over twenty-four. She was a stocky woman of about thirty, a single mother on welfare plucked from the graduation rolls of Greenfield Community College as part of Enfield's half-hearted efforts to diversify its student population. Among the sleek children of privilege, she stood out like an inflamed thumb.
"Obviously you're not teaching right now," Sunnye Hard castle said. I had her attention again, and her confident tone set my teeth on edge. You're not teaching right now. As if I were simply sitting around on my duff waiting for celebrity writers to drop by.
"My American Popular Fiction seminar meets in an hour, Ms. Hardcastle. I'm free until then." To tell the truth, I wouldn't have minded something to distract me. It was an honors seminar, and I had a bad case of the first-day jitters.
"Popular fiction? You mean like crime fiction?"
"You're kidding. I didn't know they actually taught that stuff in colleges." Trouble nudged her leg. She scratched the big dog behind his ears. Her grey eyes assumed a distant expression, as if she were contemplating anything but the vagaries of college curriculum. Then, outside the window, a student yelled, "Hey, George, whatup?" and Sunnye Hardcastle snapped back to the moment.
"Professor Pelletier, I'll be brief." Her tone became brusque. "I'm just beginning a new book — a complete departure from the Kit Danger stories —"
A Hardcastle novel without Kit Danger? I couldn't imagine it.
"— and I could use some expert advice."
Expert advice? From me? The world of the Kit Danger novels was, as you might expect, a perilous place. Dysfunctional families destroyed their children. Corrupt civil servants bled communities dry. Corporations conducted massive cover-ups of deadly products. Brutal gang members terrorized neighborhoods. The wealthy preyed upon each other, and upon the poor. And Kit Danger, private eye, took under her wing the most vulnerable of the weak and needy, restoring a momentary justice at the end of each venture, most often in spite of the wiles of treacherous, alluring men. I certainly had no expert advice to offer her creator.
Unless, of course, she wanted to discuss the wiles of treacherous, alluring men.
"This is going to be an historical novel," the writer continued, "set in the New York City slums during the nine teenth century, and, to tell the truth, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by the research I'll have to do. The book needs to be as authentic as possible, but I'm no historian." Her dark eyes narrowed as she focused on me. "When I saw in the conference program that you were going to speak on the American working class, I thought maybe you could help me with some historical sources."
I was scheduled to give a talk on murder in American working-class literature. It had been listed in the program as Deconstructing Death: Class Binaries in the Representation of Murder in American Working-Class Discourse, 1845-1945. In spite of the quasi-lurid title, this was a fairly dry academic topic, and I was up to my ears in historical sources.
"Well, certainly," I said. "That would be no problem...."
Fifty minutes later, Sunnye and I were seated at the con ference table, poring over bibliography printouts and old books. Someone knocked at the door, then, without waiting for a response, pushed it open. Monica entered, out of breath. A clump of short brown hair stood straight up where she had snatched off her baseball cap. "Mail delivery," she announced. Mail delivery? Our mail is never delivered any further than the pigeon-hole boxes two steps away from the secretary's desk.
Monica thrust a handful of envelopes in my general direction, but her eyes were glued to Sunnye Hardcastle, and she took an impulsive step toward her. Trouble growled. His mistress silenced him.
"Ms. Hardcastle," the secretary said, braving Trouble's tooth-baring snarl as she traversed the room, "I just wanted to make sure you didn't leave without signing my copy of Tough Times." Her hand rose to her heaving chest. "I ran all the way home to get it. You're my favorite writer ever."
Sunnye smiled at her. I was surprised she possessed the appropriate facial muscles. "How nice of you to say so. I'd be happy to sign your book." She opened Tough Times to the title page, scrawled an inscription, and signed with a flourish.
"Thankyouthankyouthankyou," Monica gushed, hugging the book to her chest. "I'll treasure this forever." Then she turned to me, her eyebrows puckering. "Karen? Don't you have a class now?"
"Aaargh!" My watch informed me I had four and a half minutes to get across campus.
Sunnye stood up. "Professor Pelletier — Karen — I didn't mean to make you late." Then, very formally, she said. "I appreciate your help. If there's ever anything I can do ..."
I was thrusting notes and books helter-skelter into my briefcase, but I paused. The class would wait for me. Ten minutes for an assistant professor. Twenty for an associate professor. A half-hour for a full professor. That was the common etiquette in any college I'd ever had anything to do with. I had no idea where these laws had come from in the first place, but they seemed to hold true at all times in all places.
I hefted the briefcase and gazed at Sunnye consideringly. My seminar was in popular fiction. She was a pop-fiction ground-breaker, the first of the hard-boiled female detective writers, the creator of that feminist icon, Kit Danger, the bad-ass sleuth from Detroit. The woman intimidated the hell out of me, but she had offered. "Well, maybe there is something ..."
* * *
Sunnye Hardcastle was a smash hit with my seminar, twelve honors students seated around a battered mahogany conference table. The Emerson Hall seminar room was long and narrow, painted pale cream above blue-green wainscoting. The novelist sat at the head of the table and answered questions about writing and the writer's life for over an hour. Trouble brooded at her feet. She was gracious and charming, and, perversely, I was miffed by her congeniality. Why was she so damn pleasant with everyone else and so curt with me?
To cap off her appearance, the novelist read to the class from Tough Times.
Dead men don't tell tales, Kit Danger mused, as she peered from the catwalk high above the vast emptiness of the abandoned automotive plant. The two men sprawled on the fractured concrete floor were indisputably dead. She'd read that somewhere, that line about not telling tales; that was all just words, black ink etched on a white page. But the bodies were real. From where she balanced precariously on the catwalk, they looked like squashed white spiders oozing ragged trails of blood across a floor the color of lead shavings. These men were snitches. They were here to talk. They had arranged to meet her amidst the industrial detritus with the sole purpose of talking. Now they themselves were industrial detritus. The long impersonal forefinger of cold, hard power had reached out and pressed the discard button. There would be no more tales.
At a soft sound from behind her, Kit spun around, the big Sig Sauer 226 ready in her hand....
When Sunnye finished reading, my students heaved a collective sigh. The edgy glamour of Kit Danger — and her creator — had gotten to them. At that moment I would have bet fully one half had decided to become crime writers themselves, and the other half, private eyes. The impetuous career-plan switches would last all of twelve-and-a-half minutes; with more than thirty thousand dollars a year shelled out for their education, Enfield College students tend not to be risk-takers.
Only Peggy Briggs, my "mature student," seemed less than enthralled by Sunnye Hardcastle. Peggy watched the writer with hooded eyes, refraining from the general approbation. One hand clutched a blue ball-point pen, the other, clenched in a fist, lay taut on her thigh. As Sunnye Hardcastle signed bookmarks for the members of the class, Trouble raised his head from her boot and sniffed Peggy's clenched hand. Peggy flinched. Trouble's mistress yanked hard on his leash. The big dog sighed and lowered his muzzle to the floor.
Sunnye turned to Peggy and offered her an autographed bookmark featuring a lurid black-and-crimson image of a smoking gun. Peggy took one look at the bookmark, emitted a gasp, followed by a wail and a guttural sob. I turned to my student, concerned. Abruptly she leapt up from her seat and ran out of the classroom, leaving her books and backpack behind.
"My God," Sunnye Hardcastle said, "what the hell was that all about?"CHAPTER 2
Late that night I headed to the parking lot. A college campus is never exactly dark, even at midnight: Security lights illuminate walkways, and eerie blue bulbs mark the location of safety call boxes. But offices were unlit, as were most of the dorm rooms, and the quad as I crossed it was a lonely place. Then, from Prescott House, where the freshmen lived, came a sudden series of drunken hoots, followed by the crash of a shattering window. I spun in the direction of the disturbance, then turned back again; rowdiness in the dorm is not a professor's business. A residential advisor would intervene. Or a security guard.
The night brooded in the tepid miasma of a January thaw. After the visit from Sunnye Hardcastle, the seminar, and the first full-college faculty meeting of the semester, featuring a nasty squabble over sexual-harassment policy, I'd gone back to my office to complete my opening lecture for the next day's freshman class. Now, exhausted, I had barely enough focus to keep my feet on the path. God only knew where I'd find the energy to fire up the Subaru and drive the back roads to my little country house.
The walkway to the parking lot passed the library quad, skirting Clark Memorial, the current Enfield College library building, and the construction site for the new, and as yet unnamed, Enfield College library center. When it happened, it happened so fast, I thought I was hallucinating. To my left, the library, dreaming in the darkness, flared suddenly to frantic life, alarms blaring, blinding white strobe lights flashing like a futuristic war zone. Then a figure sped out of the shadows with breathtaking velocity, slammed into me, knocked me to the pavement, staggered, recovered its equilibrium, and vanished into the night.
* * *
"A book thief?" Charlie Piotrowski repeated, incredulous. "You were knocked down by a book thief!"
Excerpted from The Maltese Manuscript by Joanne Dobson. Copyright © 2003 Joanne Dobson. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Karen Pelletier is a Professor in the English Department of an American University. The department is organizing a forthcoming conference on 'the murder mystery'. In the process ,Sunnye Hardcastle (a rather unlikely name one feels) a famous writer in this genre arrives to speak at the event.Shortly after,a large number of rare and semi-rare books are stolen from the Library and the thief is found dead in the book-stacks. Murder or accident?The missing books however are still missing,so Karen sets off to attempt to trace them,not it has to be said ,with the full approval of her policeman boyfriend Charlie Piotrowski. Sunnye,the crime writer,complicates the police investigations.What I liked about this was the many mentions of books,libraries and other literary bits and pieces that cropped up in the course of this story.The downside was that on the whole the characters were rather one-dimensional.On balance I will give it a 4½,because I loved the overall bookish theme.
She was brought up in a rough and tough neighborhood, got the valedictorian award taken away from her because she became pregnant but didn¿t let her past influence her future. Karen Pelletier went on to become an assistant English professor at ritzy Enfield College in Massachusetts. In the spring, she is going to give a talk at the mystery conference sponsored by the women studies group. She is asked and reluctantly accepts hosting the guest of honor, best-selling author Sunnye Hardcastle and her Doberman Trouble. It is difficult for her to write the paper as the reference books were stolen from the library, as were many other valuable works. When the body of Bob Tooey is found in the stack Sunnye comes under suspicion because she was the last person who was seen talking to him but Karen, who by now thinks of the author as a friend, is convinced she is innocent. Karen and Sunnye sneak into the stacks one night after the library closes looking for clues and almost gets themselves killed. Whoever thinks academics are peaceful gentle souls have not read one of Joanne Dobson¿s exciting academic mysteries. The protagonists is a very independent woman who will not be dissuaded once she decides on a course of action. THE MALTESE MANUSCRIPT is the best work in this series because there are many smaller who-done-its that have to be solved so that the bigger mystery can be cracked open. Harriet Klausner