Extra Credit by Maggie Barbieri
Long ago when television began offering minute-by-minute coverage of national elections, the clever production people came up with a visual representation of the swing in votes needed to deliver a winner from a different party both in individual constituencies and nationally. With literal minds at work, it was called the swingometer and was in steady use from 1955 onward. Now we’ve invented a whole new science and, with a typical disregard for comprehensibility, called it psephology, crude manual devices have been replaced with a range of different coloured charts, but the notion of the swingometer survives. It’s a very easily understandable way of showing how many people need to change their votes to get a different result in a first-past-the-post electoral system. More often than not, my own readingometer takers up an early position and rarely changes to any significant degree as I go through the current book. But with Extra Credit by Maggie Barbieri (Minotaur Books, 2013) I found the pendulum swinging from one end of the range to the other. This is distinctly unusual.
So what’s the problem? Extra Credit is volume seven in the A Murder 101 Mystery series and my first look at this author. We’re into the life of Alison Bergeron who’s married to NYPD Detective Bobby Crawford. She’s an English Professor at St Thomas in the Bronx and seems to have a tendency to find herself on the wrong end of criminal behaviour. All this is relatively uncontroversial and, given their relationship, an obviously fertile field to plough for opportunities for them to collaborate in solving crimes. It can be a variation on the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin idea. She stays quietly in her role as homemaker and academic stalwart while he rabbits on about his latest case. As his frustration mounts, she gently suggests what he might look for or questions to ask. So, without ever dirtying her hands, she solves his cases and can devote herself to nurturing the students gently flowering in her college. Except that’s not at all what’s written. I confess to finding her a relatively unsympathetic character from the outset. Although I sympathise she has to meet the family of his ex-wife, this is not the most inspiring of starts. The hook is set when an eccentric guy who disappeared for years, gives her step twins $5,000 each as a present. No-one seems clear on where this money might have come from. It may be dishonestly obtained. Our couple are therefore adamant the twins cannot accept this money. Unfortunately, the generous cash donor is almost immediately found dead in his run-down apartment. When the police conduct a search, they find a quarter-million stuffed in the mattress. Except it looks like suicide. Why he should have wanted to kill himself is unknown. Perhaps he was just an eccentric nutter with a hidden past who just couldn’t stand himself any longer.
So instead of this playing the detective game, Extra Credit turns out to be a story about this couple’s marriage which devolves into a weak-kneed thriller. So why didn’t I simply confirm my dislike and leave the swinging arm firmly at one end of the range? Well, after a while, there were passages I found mildly amusing. What had seemed rather ham-fisted commentary from our English professor became lighter in tone and more entertaining. During these passages, I was prepared to forgive the angst when someone poisoned our couple’s dog and there were other less than riveting alarums and excursion. I sat waiting for this to become more generally amusing. Except it doesn’t. So, as my disappointment with the developments in the plot became dominant, the swingometer swung back to unfavorable and then firmly descended into the deepest negative territory available. The reason? There really was no detective work going on. It’s all threats to our heroine and, later, a kidnapping. But she has no real idea what’s going on nor who’s responsible. It’s all just a more exciting than usual life for our English professor. Even the descriptions of the academic world have no credibility in my eyes, being as far from my own experience in university life as it’s possible to get. If this is what it’s actually like in American higher education, it’s not surprising standards are dropping like the proverbial stone in the international rankings.
The result is bafflement this should have been published by a usually reliable publishing house. I suppose the author might have built up a fan base for a romance with thrillerish pretentions and the odd crime to experience. More of the same might sell to those fans. But as a newcomer to the series, I found this vapid rubbish, apart from mildly amusing passages in the middle third. So if you are already a fan based on the earlier books, presumably this is more of the same and you will enjoy this. If you are trying to decide whether to sample this author, do not under any circumstances start with Extra Credit.
For a review of another book by Maggie Barbieri, see Once Upon a Lie.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.