published 2015, but with complex publication history, see below
I remember thinking Dr Hilary Quinn was not a bit like I’d been picturing her for the previous six months. I’d had visions of a rather frail, older woman with her hair up in a bun. Don’t ask me why; maybe my brain’s casting director lumped all bookish characters – professors, libararians, authors, bookstore clerks – into one type. All I knew is that Central Casting had to do a massive reshuffle when the office door swung open.
Dr Quinn was just average height for a woman in her late 40s or early 50s, but she held herself with such amazing posture that she seemed taller than me. She had shoulders I’d have killed for, the Joan Crawford kind but without the padding, and short dark hair that resembled anthracite with a few strategically-placed veins of silver running through it. She wore a large red sweater over a black and red tartan skirt. I was going to have to fire my casting personnel; Dr Quinn was altogether the quintessential professor.
commentary: There’s all kinds of interest in this apparently routine book. First of all, I came to it via my good friend Bill Selnes over at Mysteries and More. He said it was
The most unusual academic mystery I have read. Another Margaret is a nice surprise which will confound your expectations.--so I was hooked at once and ordered copy. It’s a Canadian book, and was not easy to get hold of in the UK, but I managed it. And then (quel surprise) failed to read it, it sat on the shelf along with all the other tempting books. But Bill recently returned to Janice MacDonald, and with specific reference to me: in this blogpost he strongly urged me to read another book by the author, one with fascinating clothes references. So that finally forced me to pick up this book, and I was so glad I did: I agree with Bill that this is a splendid author, with a lot to say and a good line in detectives and crime. (I have downloaded his second recommendation, and will read it, and blog on it. Soon. Honest.)
The book has a Preface, to be read first, in which the author explains that Another Margaret is a rewrite of an earlier book by her (then called The Next Margaret) and she explains her reasons for doing this: apparently the first book is unavailable, and so she incorporated the plot into a new version of the story more than 20 years later… Most unusual.
As a result, the book has a dual timeline: We read about Miranda (Randy) Craig as she takes her first steps in academia, anxious to write about a new and marvellous Canadian author, Margaret Ahlers. MacDonald does a terrific job of creating the life, persona and work of the fictional Ahlers and (as Bill says) really makes you want to read her books. There is a fascinating story which ends in high drama. The book then takes us back to Randy’s current life: there is to be a reunion at her university, and some of the participants in the first story will be there… obviously, trouble is the result.
I loved many things about the book: I always like an academic setting, and this was a good one. We heard a lot about Randy’s life, followed her through her day in a way that reminded me of the much-loved Gail Bowen books (also Canadian, coincidence?) and the great (but very British) Cassandra James in Christine Poulson's books. Randy's interest in, and studies in, literature featured in a readable and intriguing way. There is a plotline concerning the mysterious Ahlers’ books which would be of particular interest to crime fiction readers. And there is much discussion of the difficulties of getting tenure, the culture of ‘publish or perish’, and the almost-arbitrary way in which works of literature (and non-literature) are divided up, and judged, and found either worthy or wanting.
The book is thought-provoking, but also funny and very entertaining. I liked the reunion party which is ‘just classy enough to show us we’ve come along, and still makeshift enough to feel grad-studentish.’ And I learned a new phrase:
This weekend was going to be a minefield of emotions, or as my students said, this would be a time of ‘all the feels.’My only complaint would be that there was a giant plothole at the end, something left completely unexplained. But I enjoyed the rest so much I forgive her, and will move on to the next book.
Anyone who enjoys an academic mystery will like this one (you know who you are, Margot, Chrissie, Lucy, Bev).
And thanks very much to Bill for the tipoff.
The book frequently mentions another Margaret, the Canadian grande dame of literature Margaret Atwood, who has featured on the blog here.