Where better to set a mystery than a small campus oozing with academic rivalry? And who better to write it than a retired professor?
Academic Body, a cozy mystery by Professor Shirley S. Allen, takes place at a private East Coast college.
Picture the stately buildings, the red-orange leaves blanketing the tree-lined paths as the students return. John Updike wrote of school and September:
The breezes tastes
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel —
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
Somehow he missed the smell of murder, but Professor Allen didn’t.
Review of Academic Body
The story opens in the icy rain en route to the Dean’s Reception. Paul Godwin’s stunning wife Lenore, a Broadway star, has just arrived from New York, hopefully to stay. A weak heart forced Paul, a former director, into teaching drama. Now he must woo Lenore from the bright lights.
Paul’s plans go south when the Dean accuses him of dallying with a female student and says he can produce evidence. Paul knows he’s innocent, but agrees to a meeting.
Before they can meet, however, someone does in the Dean with a blunt object. Paul becomes a suspect and so do his colleagues, since the slimy murder victim kept real and fabricated blackmail material on all of them.
Paul turns detective to clear his name. He and Lenore team up, just like the old days, to map suspects like they would actors in a play.
But everyone has a motive, from the philandering French instructor to the radical Sociology professor to the Dean’s spinster secretary (who’s not so uptight after all). The secrets and surprises keep piling up.
Academic Body features a quirky, memorable cast in the tradition of Agatha Christie. If you’re a classic movie fan who enjoyed The Thin Man, you’ll love the repartee of Paul and Lenore Godwin. The twisty plot and claustrophobic atmosphere kept me turning pages and wondering whodunnit.
I also think it’s brilliant that someone from the “publish or perish” milieu published a mystery where an academic villain perishes!
Q&A With Professor Allen
Professor Allen has retired from teaching, but I think she still deserves her honorific. She raised her three children before becoming a professor of English and published Academic Body at age 89 (she turned 91 last May)!
She received a B.A. from Carleton College and a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College. Her scholarly publications include a history of Shakespearean performances during California’s Gold Rush and the definitive text on 19th-century actor-manager Samuel Phelps.
You’ve got some heavy academic credentials, Professor Allen. What inspired you to write fiction at this stage?
I began writing Academic Body 20 years ago, not long after I had reluctantly retired from teaching at the University of Connecticut. My husband had retired and we had moved to California, close to my sister and her family. She had lured me with the suggestion that we write mysteries together.
How long did you work on Academic Body?
My sister had changed her mind about writing, but I had already written the first chapter and was eager to work out the plot, so I kept going until I finished the first draft, but I put it aside because a cousin bequeathed to me the family Bibles, letters, house deeds, photos, and genealogy.
I plunged into the papers and found the facts so fascinating that I began writing a much more important novel on the life of my great-grandmother, which took a lot of research.
That book, Roxanna Britton, was published by Criterion Press in 2001, the year I moved from San Diego to the Bay Area. In my new home, I recovered Academic Body and began a revision, which was published by Mostly Murder Press in 2010.
With the advent of ebooks, both books are getting new life in digital form. The e-book of Academic Body was released by Mark Williams international Digital Publishing in June of 2012, and Roxanna Britton was republished.
If you could invite any five literary personages from any time period to dinner, who would they be and why?
My choices probably come more from admiration of their work, not for their performance at dinner parties.
- William Shakespeare because of his wit, wonderful metaphors, and understanding of human beings.
- L. Frank Baum because he gave girls a sense of self and showed us how strong we could be in an age when we were seen and not heard.
- Charles Dickens because he awoke me to the hard lives of the poor and the orphaned.
- Anthony Trollope for portraying the workings of the human mind in making decisions.
- Virginia Woolf for giving women a voice in a man’s world.
What can you tell late-blooming writers with families and day jobs about keeping the faith?
My advice is to do what you have to do for your family and your job, but keep your manuscript accessible. (Click to tweet this!)
Just reading what you have written may be the most important thing to do at some moments. Think of your project as a precious resource that will help you face the empty nest or minor setbacks in other areas in the future.
What wonderful advice! Thank you, Shirley S. Allen, for visiting Later Bloomer and inspiring us all. (Appreciation also goes to author Anne R. Allen for bringing her mom to my attention.)
(Update: I am so sorry to report that Shirley S. Allen passed away on December 1, 2013 at the age of 92. She was born in the Roaring ’20s and finished Academic Body at age 89. What a life!)
Artwork: Still Life with Skull by Paul Cezanne (1898)