C S Challinor’s sojourns in Scotland and England and residency in Florida, her academic background, ear for language and love of the classic age of whodunits all contribute greatly to the authority of this novel. She writes sympathetically about individuals from one culture adapting to another, about the struggles and stresses of students coping away from home and the bemusement of their elders trying to get to grips with modern mores. And, for the mystery aficionado, she sprinkles the text with clues and red herrings in equal measure in best whodunit tradition. Phi Beta Murder is a fine page-turner given a sense of urgency by predetermined time-constraints and the cloistered and claustrophobic atmosphere of a second-rate Florida college where a student is found hanged. Add to that a list of dramatis personae and a taster for a sequel and you have a hugely enjoyable piece of bedtime fiction.
A confession: I’m not a great fan of mysteries, especially when they’re self-declared cozy mysteries, a sub-genre paying homage to classic detective writers like Agatha Christie. In common with many critics characterisation can often seem mechanical and the individuals mere pawns in the plot-led story; in this sense their weakness is their strength, exactly as candy-floss, while not providing proper nutrition, nevertheless gives you the pleasure that comes with a sugar-hit. What gives Challinor’s locked-room mystery its real meat, however, is the back story of Rex Graves, Scottish QC and amateur sleuth, and his all-too-human attempts to cope with family and relationships and what fate throws at him. Unlike the mystery plot there are no simple solutions to life’s conundrums, and one really warms to this well-observed middle-aged male adrift in a sea of emotion.
A final observation: there must be few detective stories, let alone tales set in Edinburgh, with as arresting an opening sentence as “From Blackford Hill, the volcanic formation of Arthur’s Seat resembled a pair of buttocks.” If that doesn’t grab your attention, I suspect nothing much will.