Tag Archives: murder

If you thought college was killer, well—it just might be!

As an author of recent debut novel, I’m always interested to read others’ debut novels.  I met author Kelly Brakenhoff through my Sisters in Crime, Guppies listserv and after a  couple of emails, I was thrilled to be invited to read and review her first mystery. I’ve been enjoying meeting debut authors on the page and sometimes in person, I’ve decided to make reviewing debut novels a regular feature of Building a Better Story. Blame it all on Kelly Brakenhoff!

Kelly Brakenhoff author of the new Cassandra Sato series. Just released: Death by Dissertation.

The ink is barely dry on Death by Dissertation, released on Earth Day.

Two months into her dream job as Student Affairs Administrator at prestigious Morton College located in Nebraska’s farming country, intrepid Dr. Cassandra Sato wonders if she’s walked into a nightmare instead. She knew before leaving her Honolulu home, she’d have to contend with the cold, but she hadn’t realized how stifled living landlocked could be. And now a deaf student has died suspiciously right before Homecoming and her boss, Dr. Nielson, not only has left her in charge, but wants the investigation to be quick and quiet. The research lab where the deceased worked is coming up for funding and Dr. Nielson doesn’t want to jeopardize it. But as Cassandra, Meg, Cassandra’s friend and the campus ASL interpreter, and campus security, Andy Summers, work with local authorities, the mystery deepens. Cassandra feels responsible for protecting the students caught in the tangled web surrounding the death. She’s still on probation and must prove  she’s worthy of her “dream” job, even as she’s the victim of racial slurs and vandalism.  As the details of the investigation leak into the media and the school is thrown into a public relations disaster, it’s her job on the line.

 

I’m a lover of campus mysteries. As a college instructor, I feel right at home with the endless committee meetings, the rules and traditions, and the expectation that I have nothing else to do but be at the call of the Dean. Cassandra knew this part before signing on. She’s spent most of her 28 years in school and is the youngest PhD ever to graduate from the University of Hawaii.

Brakenhoff gives readers a detailed look at the culture on a campus of higher education as she richly develops the characters. Cassandra Sato is sharp, thoughtful, witty and persistent. She’s also compassionate, forgiving and imperfect. She’s a good friend to Meg and a woman anyone would want on their side.

Brakenhoff knows how to craft a clear, meaning packed sentence. She doesn’t waste words or rely on frivolous detail. Her prose is serious, succinct and packed with exactly what we need when we need it. I’ve really enjoyed working out the clues with Cassandra and colleagues as their investigation progressed through the surprises and revelations. And more, I’ve come to like Cassandra and her allies deeply.

Brakenhoff doesn’t rush. Cassandra has the full scope of student life on campus to contend with and the extra burden of Homecoming planning and minding, as well as a death to solve. If you’re looking for fast-paced action, this book isn’t going to appeal. But if you are looking to get to know a place and the people who inhabit that place with a good dose of murder mystery investigation thrown in, you can’t go wrong with Death by Dissertation.

And if you thought college was killer, well, it just might be.

 

Chin chin!

My hearty congratulations to Kelly Brakenhoff on her debut. I’m tipping my wine glass to a successful series.

Enter to win Kelly’s giveaway!

AM: How did you come to write this book?

KB: As an American Sign Language Interpreter with more than twenty years of experience, I’ve worked in college classrooms for fifteen different majors. My job has also involved traipsing across muddy farm fields, stomach churning medical procedures, and stage interpreting for famous figures. I love the academic world, but strange things happen there that even a fiction writer could not make up. It seemed like the perfect setting for a mystery series.

AM: Is it going to be a series?

 

KB: Yes, I have at least four books planned for the series. Readers will get to know Cassandra’s co-workers and hilarious friends better in each story.

 

AM: Will Cassandra live through the freezing winter?

 

KB: Let’s hope that Cassandra’s winter is better than the six-month long slog we had this winter in Nebraska. As if snowstorms in October weren’t bad enough, we ended with a Biblical flood in March that completely altered the terrain and wrecked small towns and family farms. Cassandra would surely have packed her bags and moved back to Paradise if she’d seen dead cattle floating down the Main Street of her rural Nebraska town.

 

AM: What is your background that allows you to write about both Hawaii and Nebraska?

 

KB: Six weeks after my husband and I got married we moved to Hawai’i for five years where he started his first job out of college building a golf course. We both fell in love with the culture and special people we met there, but eventually we moved back to Nebraska. Between those experiences and my interpreting career, I’ve seen first-hand many of the things I write about in my books.

 

AM: What do you think of families buying their kids into top schools?

 

KB: This is a great question for someone who works part-time at the state university where I graduated from and where my own children attended. Deep down I think many of us know that very wealthy people have privileges and access to opportunities that most of us don’t have. The recent indictments give us proof, but students I’ve heard talking about it were not surprised at all and neither am I. I’d argue that one doesn’t have to attend an Ivy League school to get a good education, but that shows my bias for state school systems.

Kelly Brakenhoff is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. Death by Dissertation (April, 2019) is her first novel.

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Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper

 

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Fanny Newcomb, the plucky heroine of Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper, is a woman ahead of her age and from the first sentence, I knew Fanny was my kind of girl.

shoppingThe story opens on a Friday in April, 1889. Fanny is battling with a Hammond typewriting machine and “all hell would break loose” if she hadn’t mastered it by the time her typing students arrived the following Wednesday. Fanny had managed her Father’s law office for a decade but she’d never seen a typewriter before, something she’d failed to mention to her employer, Sylvia Giddings, Principal and Founder of Wisdom Hall Settlement House, at the interview. When her father died, Fanny lost her livelihood, failed as a lady’s companion and run out of resources. The school, located in the impoverished Irish district of New Orleans, offered business classes to the local women and appealed to Fanny’s sense of justice. And besides, teaching was better than marrying and being relegated to home, hearth and afternoon tea with New Orleans society ladies. A life without meaningful work is anathema to Fanny.

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Hull House

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Fanny is distracted by the incessant ringing of the infirmary bell and rushes to find twelve-year-old Liam who delivers the news: Dr. Olive Giddings, Sylvia’s sister, is needed at Connor’s Court because someone has been murdered. The women race to the scene and find Nora, Fanny’s star business student, strangled and meet Charity Hospital’s ambulance driver, a doctor whose manner horrifies Olive. As the crowd gathers, rumors start and soon the cry goes out, “Jesus! Joseph and Mary! It’s Jack the Ripper! Here in New Orleans!” The morning edition of the Daily Picayune echoes the crowd at the scene, reporting the woman has had her throat cut. The police don’t think it’s Jack the Ripper and come to Wisdom Hall Settlement House to arrest Sylvia’s carpenter, Karl, for the murder. Fanny knows Karl was working at the school at the time of the murder, added incentive to investigate the crime. She enlists Sylvia and Olive, Liam, beau Lawrence Decatur, tabloid journalist Clarence Holloway and even N.O. Police detective Daniel Crenshaw to help her identify the killer, free Karl and bring Nora the justice she deserves.

 

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Unknown-6Fanny’s investigation reveals more than a murderer. It takes readers through the colorful underbelly of New Orleans’s slums, saloons, prostitution and houses of prostitution. Revealed are the gulfs between the “haves” and “have nots”, the deep prejudices the Irish and German immigrants held for each other and the ingrained racism of white against black, regardless of social standing. Revealed is the rigid class system, hatred of immigrants, lack of concern for the poor and the blatant systems keeping them from rising in station.

 

The story is a fascinating look into the Gilded Age’s society, its hierarchies and mores. Women were at the bottom and unmarried women the lowest. Fanny questions her own motives and place in the world. Should she marry? Should she strive for independence? Fanny, Sylvia and Olive are spinsters and meddling in men’s work: schools, medicine, investigations. Society thwarts them at every turn. They are shunned, ridiculed, patronized and harangued by a priest as “bad women” on par with prostitutes for being unmarried and working, and like prostitutes, deserving of horrific deaths. In this intolerant and compassionless climate, it’s no wonder a wave of terror overtakes the city. Fanny, Sylvia and Olive want to exonerate Karl, but more, they fight the battle against ignorance and oppression for poor women and for their society as a whole. They are early social justice crusaders patterned after British Beatrice Webb, Americans Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Star, and Progressive Era pioneers Eleanor McMain, Eliza Nicholson and Sara Mayo.

At the end, Daniel Crenshaw is lauded as the hero to solve the case although it couldn’t have been done without Fanny and the Giddings sisters. Fanny understood that “Certainly, no one would have believed that Fanny, Sylvia, and Olive could have interjected themselves into a grisly murder, studied pornography, or visited a whorehouse and a prison. No lady could have attempted any of those social offences.”

Although author Ana Brazil’s historical detail is well researched and rich, at no time does her writing become didactic or does history drown-out the suspense and intrigue. Fanny is a risk taker and has a gift for theft. She manages to steal important documents that help her win the respect of her allies and solve the case. Between the three women of Wisdom Hall Settlement House, they bring most of the resources they need—Fanny’s clever, intelligent mind and legal training, Olive’s deep knowledge of the human body and medicine, and Sylvia’s connections and social standing—to solve the case. Each has something to offer, but it’s Fanny who has the mental acuity to see the patterns and put them together, leading her into extreme dangers. My pulse pounded during the story’s harrowing climax (no spoilers!)

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At the end, Brazil leaves readers with hope that there will be another Fanny Newcomb book. “But Fanny Newcomb also knew that she was not finished with investigating or questioning or detecting. And that she would look for any opportunity to seek out justice again. . . .” And what was that frisson I noticed between Fanny and Daniel Crenshaw? I can’t wait for the next adventure to see if Fanny will cave to societal expectations or forge ahead doing what she loves.

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anapat_1505963276_75I want to wish Ana Brazil hearty congratulations on the publication of her first historical novel. It’s a fun, fast, informative, can’t-put-it-down read for anyone who loves New Orleans, the Gilded Age, strong women protagonists, mysteries and the Southern writing tradition. I love them all!

For a photographic exploration of Fanny’s time visit Ana’s Pinterest Board: Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper

 

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Art and Crime—A Perfect Pairing

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Art evokes emotion within the beholder and that emotion isn’t always pretty. A work of art can soothe us, make us laugh, cry, or long for something lost—and art can send us spiraling out of control to possess it. Art is also big business, both legitimate and nefarious. It isn’t surprising so many stories emanate from the art world. Art can mask a multitude of secrets and make a person rich and dangerously powerful, something Danielle O’Rourke, chief fundraiser for San Francisco’s Devor Museum of Art and Antiquities, is reminded of the hard way in Mixed Up with Murder. 

On the recommendation of Geoff Johnson, the Devor’s board chairman and board member of Lynthorpe College in Bridgetown, Massachusetts, Dani O’Rourke is hired to facilitate the acceptance of a valuable art collection and the twenty million dollar endowment to support it from wealthy class of 1970 alumnus, Vincent Margoletti. It’s an important gift that will enhance the college’s reputation and everyone wants a speedy and legal settlement of terms. That’s the problem—Margoletti made his billions brokering Silicon Valley tech deals and is known to play an angle if it will get him ahead. Dani is there to watch the school’s back.

 imagesDani begins information gathering with Gabby, a researcher in the Development office who provides her with files and a tour of the art gallery, but appointments are postponed and Dani is stood up by her key contact, Larry Saylor. Saylor turns up drowned in a pond on the golf course. Dani is pressured to sign off on the gift, as the college atmosphere turns dark. To confuse matters, Dani’s wealthy ex-husband is in the area for a class reunion and hounds her to attend functions, she and her boyfriend aren’t connecting, her Devor work is piling up and she’s losing her intern to a permanent job offer.

IMG_1605Dani and Gabby uncover irregularities with the deal, and when a terrible event strikes too close for comfort, Dani makes finding answers personal. She is followed, threatened, accused and held against her will as the plot twists to its surprising climax.

 Mixed Up with Murder is an engaging, smart read in part because author Susan C. Shea gives readers an insider’s look at the business of fine art. It’s a money-driven world where the wealthy and the highbrow play for high stakes. The other part of the equation is Dani O’Rourke, a polished, witty, and sharply intelligent professional who knows her job and how to read people—skills needed to part donors from their money to support the San Francisco museum. She really has only one foible: Dani attracts trouble. She’s written with depth and humor, making her a thoroughly delightful protagonist. I’m dying to know what will happen with her love interest in the next book.

As well crafted as the protagonist, the plot moves in surprising ways. It never lags and I couldn’t predict the turns. Shea’s writing style is smooth, clear, informative and never redundant. It’s obvious that Shea respects her readers and trusts us to understand the text without dumbing-down the language or overwriting to impress us. The story flows through concepts, images and dialog in a natural and logical progression.

Mixed Up with Murder is the third in the Danielle O’Rourke series. I don’t know how I missed the first two books, but I’ll be going back to catch up with this strong, smart character and her compelling world of art, money and murder.

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Author Susan C. Shea

P. S.

I want to than Susan C. Shea for providing me with an Advanced Reader Copy and congratulate her  on today’s (2/2/16) launch of Mixed Up with Murder. Reading this book has been a pleasurable experience on every level. Did I mention I couldn’t put it down? I’m ranking Dani O’Rourke right up there with my favorite sleuths: Phryne Fisher, Laurel McKay, China Bayles, and Aimée Leduc. They’re all different, but they’ll all smart women, driven to use their wit and wits in heroic ways.

 

 

 

 

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