Fiction: “Murder Superior” by Jane Haddam

So yesterday was a magnificent day: in the first time in forever, I was able to finish two books on the same day. Crazy, right? This is the first one I finished — which, in a way, the finishing sucked: I had ten pages left in the entire damn book, and my lunch break ended. And all I wanted to do was finish it! But I had to go back to the floor! Why is my job so mean! oh wait …

ANYWAY. This was my “lunch break book,” to hide the fact that I was reading a tawdry romance novel (see the next entry). I hadn’t realized it had been over a year since I’d read the last in the Gregor Demarkian series, and I wanted to get back into it.

Unlike the last few in the series I’d read, this murder takes place conveniently in Philadelphia. That means that, in addition to the characters introduced especially for the murder plot, there are also some great interactions between Demarkian and his Cavanaugh Street cohorts. The holiday in question this time is Mother’s Day, and there’s a nun convention in town. It’s the same company of nuns that appeared in A Great Day for the Deadly, and they’ve invited Gregor to speak at their convention on the Brigit Ann Reilly case. The other important information is that there is a huge feud between two nuns: Mother Mary Bellarmine, and Sister Joan Esther. Joan Esther used to work for Mother Mary Bellarmine, and Mary Bellarmine is what you and I would call a heinous bitch (the other nuns would most likely call her ‘tempestuous,’ but even that is being too generous with Mary Bellarmine’s nature).

Bennis accompanies Gregor to the convention thingee. Prior to Gregor’s speech, there is a luncheon, including ice sculptures of all the mothers superior in the order. There is a procession of nuns, carrying the different ice sculptures and presenting them to the mothers superior, and Sister Jane Esther randomly gets the sculpture assigned to Mother Mary Bellarmine. Inside the sculpture, there is a small ball of chicken liver pate, which each mother superior takes and eats on a cracker, beginning the luncheon.

Except that the cracker that Sister Jane Esther is laced with fugu, which — as illustrated by this clip from The Simpsons — is either a delicacy, or extremely dangerous:

“Poison … poison … tasty fish!”

The difficulty around this particular mystery for Gregor is that by the time the police arrive, he’s already figured out the solution. Except that the lead detective is a prick of the highest order, and refuses to have Gregor’s assistance, and the detective pretty much accuses one of the sweetest nuns of murder, and the way the evidence points is that it looks like someone had been trying to murder Mother Mary Bellarmine because the chicken liver pate that did Sister Joan Esther in was from Mother Mary Bellarmine’s ice sculpture. Everyone believes that someone would want to murder Mother Mary Bellarmine, but everyone also agrees that no one would have the balls to do it.

Here’s what Gregor thinks about Detective Androcetti, and more importantly, how Gregor views the local constabulary:

If Jack Androcetti had been a halfway decent policeman, Gregor wouldn’t have spent the next two hours wandering around the back garden and along the strip of grass that allowed passage from the back garden to the sidewalk at the front. Androcetti knew Gregor had caught the body as it fell. Any policeman worth his service revolver would have taken that and run with it. Gregor had never liked the kind of detective story where the police were made to look like absolute idiots. To his mind, they exhibited a particularly obnoxious form of class snobbery and a total disregard for reality. Even the Nero Wolfe books — which he liked because Wolfe was fat and proud of it — annoyed him because of their portrayal of the police. What he was supposed to do with a case where the police really were idiots, he didn’t know. He consoled himself with the knowledge that Sergeant Collins at least seemed to have a brain in his head. How much good that was going to do anyone, Gregor didn’t know. [170]

For the first time in ever (and even Gregor remarks on this), the mystery is actually solved within 24 hours of the crime happening. There is also the one body, whereas I know I’ve said in past Demarkian mysteries that the bodies usually pile up one on top of another throughout the book. In a way, I liked the fact that there was only one body and the mystery was solved so quickly; in another way, however, I was disappointed. As I’ve explained, the Demarkian mysteries begin with a Prologue, in which Jane Haddam introduces all the characters that will be central to the mystery. In this entry in the series, I felt that she really didn’t need to spend all that time on some of the characters, because those particular characters (for example, Father Stephen Monaghan and Sarabess Coltrane) didn’t really interact that much with the plot, and are removed as possible suspects simply from the nature of their being. And due to the lack of development and the loss of possibilities, I am giving this entry 2 stars.

The other point of interest I had in this book is that there are actual hints that Gregor may have different feelings for Bennis besides friendship. Of course, Gregor being Gregor, he refuses to acknowledge them (and probably writes them off as heartburn), but I still think it’s interesting:

[…] but Bennis was already gone, her bare feet slapping carelessly against the wooden floor of her foyer, on the way to the privacy of her shower. Gregor wondered suddenly if Bennis felt that she needed privacy from him — and then he shoved that away, because it made him feel a little crazy. In fact, everything about his relationship with Bennis made him feel a little crazy lately. It was as if, after years of running along on a track on which they were both comfortable, an invisible hand had thrown a switch that got them both off course. he had even started to dream about her. [67]

Of course, he represses that emotion and moves on to try and solve a murder. I felt that this quote adequately captures the true relationship between Gregor and Bennis:

“It’s easy,” Gregor said pleasantly. “All you have to know is not only who is dead but who was supposed to be dead.”

“You mean you think it was supposed to be Mother Mary Bellarmine who was killed after all?”

“I mean I hear police sirens.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s supposed to mean that one of my suspects seems to have called Lieutenant Androcetti. I’ll talk to you later, Bennis.”

“But –”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

“If I had a penny for every time you promised to tell me later and didn’t, I’d be richer than my father was.” [249]

I will of course continue to read these, even though I felt that this one was a little less than what it could have been. At one point, I had read up through Skeleton Key, and there are about ten titles after that one now. Oh, that reminds me, I need to get on getting through the Kinsey Millhone Alphabet — by the time I really get into that again, she’ll have finished whatever Z will be for.

Grade for Murder Superior: 2 stars

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