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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald

Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald – The most unusual academic mystery I have read. Another Margaret is a nice surprise which will confound your expectations.

The opening paragraph establishes this book will not be a blood drenched thriller:

Whoever said “when things get rough you can always fall back on teaching” probably had not considered the rigors of pedagogy. Of course, they probably had no idea what the word pedagogy meant in the first place.

Randy, officially Miranda, Craig labouring away as a sessional instructor at Grant MacEwan College is startled to hear a new Margaret Ahlers book is about to be published. She knows Ahlers could not have written a new book. How does she know?

Twenty years earlier, back in the late 1980's, Randy had decided to enter the world of academe by turning her undergraduate English degree into a M.A. Choosing the University of Alberta in Edmonton she casts around for a suitable topic for a thesis.

Randy is intrigued by Margaret Ahlers who is a rising presence in Canadian literature. Ahlers has written three novels, all well received by critics and readers. She is a contemporary author. A quick search shows few other graduate level theses on Ahlers.

Most important, Professor Hilary Quinn at the U. of A. has written a number of scholarly articles about Ahlers. Randy contacts Professor Quinn who agrees to be her supervisor.

Randy undertakes a thesis on “place and belonging in Ahlers’ fiction within the context of Canadian regional dictates”. The books are clearly set in Western Canada but in an unnamed area.

Her research is hampered by the reclusive nature of Ahlers. Biographical notes are non-existent. There is no way to directly contact her. Ahlers is a mystery woman.

More important Quinn is not helpful, Randy becomes grad student paranoid over the little feedback she is getting from her supervisor. Is Dr. Quinn playing a godgame with her:

“A godgame. You know, one where you are the player, but you don’t know the rules. You try to go one way, and the god who is the game-master lops off your arm because you’ve somehow transgressed an unwritten law.”

Randy, through an exhaustive analysis of the books, concludes the Ahlers books have been set in the Peace River country of northwestern Alberta.

In a trip to the Peace River country Randy cannot find any proof of Ahlers but learns that Professor Quinn is well known, even a touch notorious, in the area.

As Randy pursues her thesis on her own she is startled when a new Ahlers book appears that is completely different from the earlier books in that it is a mystery. There is consternation in the academic world for Ahlers has written a work with “a ‘sub-literary’ text” rather than another work of “literary fiction”.

Does Ahlers remain a suitable study for a Master’s thesis? Randy says to herself that she is no longer writing about either the next Margaret Laurence or the next Margaret Atwood but the next Margaret Millar. Those who recognize those 3 names have a solid knowledge of Canadian literature. MacDonald challenges readers with literary, mainly Canadian, references throughout the book. Doubt on whether one is on the right course for the thesis appears to dominate the grad student experience.

Randy does persevere and proceeds to analyze the fourth Ahlers book.

Randy’s study of the quartet of Ahlers’ books is as creative writing in crime fiction as I have encountered in a long time. To credibly have Randy doing a detailed study of each book MacDonald has effectively written extensive plot lines for four additional books (five when the later Ahlers book is published) within Another Margaret. MacDonald is so effective I found myself wishing I could read the fiction of the fictional Ahlers.

A short time later Randy is shaken when Ahlers’ publisher announces Ahlers has died. As with her life there are no details about her death.

Randy’s working theory on how Ahlers died is the weakest part of the book. In all but this section of the book Randy is a clever perceptive woman.

After revealing what happens to Ahlers the book returns to the present where Randy is reluctantly helping organize a 20 year reunion for English Masters and Honours students.

There are numerous deft comments for those who love English to appreciate in the book. An example involves the list of invitees Randy is working on for the reunion:

Who knew there that many English majors in the world? You’d think there would be far fewer apostrophe problems on signage.

Describing herself as an ambivert Randy does well speaking to groups on topics she knows well but is uncomfortable in settings of a few people she does not know well.

The best part of her life is her relationship with Edmonton Police Services detective, Steve Browning. They have had a good and caring relationship. Knowing he will be with her at the reunion calms her anxiety at meeting former classmates two decades later.

There is an unexpected dramatic conclusion to Another Margaret that had one too many twists for me.

While I have noted a couple of flaws Another Margaret is an excellent book. The setting of urban and rural Alberta is well done. The exploration of contemporary academic life is outstanding.

MacDonald, in Randy Craig, has created a memorable academic sleuth who is the Alberta equivalent to Gail Bowen’s character, Joanne Kilbourn, from Saskatchewan. I am going to read more in the series.
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This review is part of a blog tour organized by the publisher, Turnstone Press. In addition to my review today I will be posting Q and A with the author this coming Saturday as part of the tour. I encourage readers to check out the thoughts of other bloggers participating in the tour. The full tour is:

6 comments:

  1. This book really appeals to me, Bill. Flaws or not, it sounds as though it has a great academic setting, a solid premise and an interesting set of questions. The setting has my interest, too. I think this is definitely one I'll have to look out for. I have to say I like it, too, that it's not blood-drenched.

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  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I think this book was written for you. I would be very interested in your thoughts on Janice's portrayal of the academic life in Canadian universities.

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  3. I really liked the sound of this one, and it looks as though it is possible to get hold of it in the UK if you search around.... It sounds unusual but very compelling.

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    1. Moira; Thanks for the comment. I expect you will find the book intriguing.

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