The Semester of Our Discontent by Cynthia Kuhn is the 1st book in the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series, nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
Stonedale University, southwest of Denver, offers a liberal arts education to high-quality students. Cynics would suggest it is actually a school where people who have not managed to scrape into the Ivy League can lick their wounds and obtain qualifications that reflect their exceptional abilities.
Dr. Lila Maclean has been hired to teach American literature, planning an odd Gothic course along the way. She ruffles feathers in the academic hierarchy immediately, as it’s perceived she is going to be concentrating on mysteries. The debate takes a real and unexpected turn when an unfortunate individual discovers a body in the library that has been stabbed with a dagger.
Suspicion quickly falls on Doctor Maclean. She comes under extreme scrutiny, both from her colleagues and from Detective Lexington Archer of the Stonedale Police Department. It doesn’t help that she is considered young for a professor. The academic achievements she has gained are no surprise to her, as she worked very hard throughout her undergraduate study. But jealousy comes in many different shapes and forms, and achievements by people considered young can often stoke the fires of resentment and—as the book’s title refers to—discontent.
Cynthia Kuhn lays bare the reality that under the cloak of respectability afforded by academia there lurks a beating heart of broken ambition, mistrust, retribution, and jealousy that even Shakespeare would have been proud to have penned in the centuries gone by. When it comes to the human race, these elements never go out of fashion.
Dr. Maclean soon finds herself taking on the mantle of more than just a professor. She now dons the role of detective, as the violence continues and more people are subjected to attacks of varying intensity. Sometimes, it might be safer not to pursue further studies if it means spending time on a campus where death lurks around every corner. But Liza Maclean is strong enough to hold her own regardless of what is flung her way.
The Semester of Our Discontent leads the reader on a journey worthy of any crime mystery and serves up an ending you are unlikely to see coming regardless of how long you have studied the mystery genre. The characters are well defined, and the story moves along at a good pace. It may take place in the world of certificates and tweed suits, but it is sharp.
Twisting sharply to the left and rolling sideways prevented my death. I didn’t even know my body could do that, I mused. Then sharp pain dragged me back into the immediacy of the moment. I had landed hard on the ground beside the fire, my hands taking the brunt of it. My palms were cut and bleeding. As I tried to determine the level of damage, a stinging sensation radiated up my arms as well. People swarmed around trying to be helpful, which hindered my ability to stand, and I remained on the cold ground in a daze for several moments.
The Semester of Our Discontent is a good thriller that sets a fine pace while also enlightening the reader on the finer points of academic life—the ups and downs, the importance of tenure, and whether you prefer the term Professor, Doctor, or none of them.
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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.