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Murder by the Book

If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him by Sharyn McCrumb
Fawcett Paperback

Book Review A review by Marshall L. Moseley
Once in a while, you have to return to the classics. If you're a rock and roll fan, you listen to something with a strong bass line and a wailing lead guitar; if you drink wine, you sample a good Bordeaux; if you do woodworking, you buy some oak.
   And if you read mysteries, you find a "locked room" story. That's what Virginia-based mystery writer Sharyn McCrumb has written in her latest paperback release, If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him.
   A "locked room" mystery is one in which the author presents the murder as a mental puzzle. The term relates to the prototypical mystery story in which a dead body is discovered in a room that's been locked from the inside, and the only key is in the corpse's pocket. The detective in a locked room story must figure out how this seemingly impossible set of circumstances came about.
   If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him is the latest in McCrumb's "Elizabeth MacPherson" series. Elizabeth is a forensic pathologist by training, but works as a private investigator for her brother Bill's fledgling law firm.
   The book opens not in Elizabeth's era, however, but over a hundred years ago, just after the Civil War. In a prologue, we learn of the death of Colonel Todhunter, late of the Union Army, who was seemingly poisoned by his Southern belle wife, Lucy. Though everyone is certain Lucy Todhunter did the deed, the circumstances show she could not have done it. She goes free and her reputed crime becomes a local legend. This is the first locked room mystery.
   Fast-forward 120 years: The great-great-grandaughter of Lucy Todhunter, Donnna Jean Morgan, has a no-account lay preacher husband who decides to have an affair with a very young woman. Shortly thereafter, the man expires of--you guessed it--poison. The press seizes on the murder as a repeat of Lucy Todhunter's legendary crime. Elizabeth investigates not only this second locked room mystery, but takes a long hard look at the legend of Lucy Todhunter, as well.
   At the same time, Bill's partner in the law firm, A.P. Hill, chooses to represent a recently-divorced housewife who killed her ex-husband after he did everything humanly possible to deprive her of money and property. This story is not a mystery, per se, but does provide comic relief and social commentary.
   As a novel, If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him doesn't quite work. It's disjointed, and the plot, what there is of it, lacks narrative strength. McCrumb does not seem to have control of the pace of the story. This is odd, because in her other series of books involving Appalachian Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, her prose is adult and lyrical, and her command of the story is firm. Here, she just seems to wander.
   Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable read because McCrumb has a good ear for dialogue and a wicked sense of humor--especially when it comes to the foibles of men. And make no mistake, this IS a feminist novel. It should come with a NOW sticker on the cover. McCrumb's dead-on shots at the absurdity of machismo are the best part of the book. They are not enough, however, to save it.
   If you enjoy witty dialogue and comic social commentary for their own sakes, and don't require a strongly-written novel, then read McCrumb's latest. Otherwise, pass it by.

   Marshall Moseley is a Woodinville resident and an avid mystery reader. He has fifteen years' experience as a professional writer, and is the author of two computer- and software-oriented books. He currently works for Microsoft Corporation as a product manager.
   "I think mysteries have the best characterization in genre literature," he said. "All the other genres--SF, horror, romance--give second place to characterization and first place to narrative pace. Not so with mysteries. Mysteries don't work unless you believe in the characters, in what they're doing and why. Phillip Marlowe, Kinsey Millhone, Sid Halley--to me they are almost real, and that's a testament to the craft and art of their creators. So I read mysteries and I enjoy telling people about them."