A murder mystery features an unconventional college student and her friends.
This fiction debut stars Jessica James, a Montana cowgirl-turned-student at Chicago’s Northwestern University, where she endures the contemptuous, offhand sexism of her adviser, professor Baldrick Wolfgang Schmutzig. Jessica is a Ph.D. candidate in the professor’s philosophy program, and one night she and her “stoner buddy” Jack and his girlfriend-of-the-month, Amber, make a shocking discovery on campus: they find Schmutzig’s body in the bathtub of one of his rooms. Jessica also finds a typewritten, postdated note from the professor, in which he dumps her as a student and strongly advises her to quit her degree. The friends are alarmed that the police will connect them somehow to the murder. But Jessica, who’s “constitutionally incapable of being careful,” stumbles into investigating the crime herself, particularly when a note slipped under the professor’s door on the night of the killing warns her “you are not safe here.” The note was written by Dmitry Durchenko, a personable young janitor who was an art student in his native Russia and who’s revealed as being intimately connected not only with the professor’s life and death, but also with the dealings of local restaurateur and crime boss Vladimir “the Pope” Popov. Popov’s interested in some potentially priceless paintings Dmitry may or may not have smuggled into the United States. Oliver (Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from the Hunger Games to Campus Rape, 2016, etc.) tells her bouncy story in chapters alternating between Dmitry and Jessica, and she deftly keeps the two narrative sides both independently intriguing and carefully intertwined. Dmitry is a likably drawn character, as are Jessica’s various college friends (and the winningly realized police detective Harvey Cormier). But it’s Jessica herself who’s the standout creation here, a refreshing blend of grad school smarts and dude ranch grit. The author portrays Jessica’s fish-out-of-water position in grad school with infectious humor, and although a campus sexism subplot doesn’t quite hit its marks, the fast-paced story on balance remains excellent.
A witty and engaging whodunit, with a “cowgirl philosopher” who’s part V.I. Warshawski and part John Wayne.