Extra Credit by Maggie Barbieri is the seventh book in the traditional mystery series featuring English professor Alison Bergeron (available December 11, 2012).
I read a ton of traditional mysteries, and while there’s a lot I like about the genre, I must confess: I hate the Stereotypical Traditional Mystery Heroine. Sure, she’s smart, she’s loyal, and she’s dedicated to truth, justice, and the American way. But she’s also bland, boring, and bears a strong resemblance to a doormat, and despite the fact that she’s probably seen more dead bodies than your average coroner and has undoubtedly survived multiple attempts on her life, she remains sweet and kind and doesn’t contain a single ounce of bitterness or self-doubt. She has no snark, no sass, no hint of what my mother calls “attitude.” And to be honest, I find that kind of fishy. Because nobody lives the life of a Stereotypical Traditional Mystery Heroine without picking up baggage. Hell, nobody lives ANY kind of life without picking up baggage. And if you claim otherwise, well, you’re either sheltered, or you’re lying, or you’re too young to know any better.
That’s why I’m always so delighted to stumble across a traditional mystery heroine with whom I can identify. Someone with verve. Someone with pluck. Someone who’s a little jaded, and a little bitter, and who’s been kicked around, sure, but still has some fight in her. A heroine, for example, like English professor Alison Bergeron, star of Maggie Barbieri’s Murder 101 Mysteries.
Extra Credit finds Alison helping her husband Crawford’s ex-wife Christine investigate the death of her brother Chick. Now, Alison isn’t someone you’d expect to drop everything and help a virtual stranger investigate a suspicious death—particularly when said virtual stranger used to be married to her husband and seems intent on sticking around. Alison’s not a perfect teacher, or a perfect stepmother, or a perfect friend, or even a perfect wife. She’s sarcastic:
Joanne peered at me from behind the most unﬂattering glasses I had ever seen on a person; big and round with the outdated half-moon bifocal at the bottom of each, the top half making her eyes look the size of an owl’s. “You don’t seem happy, Alison.”
“I don’t?” I asked, wondering where she had gotten a sweater with three-dimensional jack-o’-lanterns sewn on it. That had clearly taken some investigation. It made the workmanship on the cat sweaters look like child’s play. “I am. Happy, that is. I’m thrilled. Her father and I will do a celebratory dance of joy tonight.”
She pursed her lips together in a way that suggested disapproval. “Alison, you know, I think more people would like you if you dropped the sarcasm every once in a while.”
“People don’t like me?”
She stood. “The sarcasm. Drop it.”
Ouch. I stood as well. I tried to put on my most sincere, least sarcastic voice. “Thank you for coming by, Joanne. I appreciate your letting me know earlier about Meaghan’s failure to perform in your class, and now I thank you for taking the time to let me know that she’s doing better.”
She regarded me coolly. “Go back to the sarcasm. The sincere thing isn’t working for you either.”
“I’ll be honest with you, Joanne: Without the sarcasm, I’m an empty husk.” I smiled sincerely. “I don’t really have a personality to speak of.”
Tim was sitting at the kitchen table, a big slab of wood that was suspended on thick wrought iron, nursing a beer. He looked up wearily, unaccustomed as he was to the world of crime. You’ll get used to it, I wanted to say, even though I didn’t think that was what he wanted to hear.
“Hi,” he said. “Anyone want a sandwich?”
I always wanted a sandwich, but I decided that asking for one now would be in bad taste. Crawford and I demurred, but all I could think of was my sandwich back home. In my house. With my dog. I wondered if it would still be there when we returned.
Tim was clearly agitated. “You up to speed on what happened?”
We sat down at the table with him while Christine got drinks, water for Crawford, a glass of wine for me. (What? It was late. I was in Connecticut. I deserved a glass of wine if I wasn’t getting a sandwich.)
And she doesn’t like to share:
I was busy looking for some crackers and was glad I was facing away from him; this way, he wouldn’t be able to see my face as I grimaced at the thought of him riding to the rescue of his ex. Again.
He came up behind me and wrapped me in a tight embrace, and I forgot, momentarily, that I was on the verge of exasperation. I leaned back into him and let my head rest against his chest, his heart beating next to my ear.
“She always was such a worrywart,” he said, and to me, he sounded almost wistful, as if her worry habits were something that he had once cherished and treasured.
I stiffened. “Okay,” I said, pulling away. “That’s it. Can we get through the rest of this night without talking about Christine, or her crazy family, or her sociopathic former sister-in-law, or Chick’s money and where it came from?”
He stepped back and leaned against the sink. “What’s going on?”
I sounded as irrational as I felt. I knew Crawford didn’t have any romantic feelings for Christine anymore—he hadn’t in over a decade—but I wasn’t secure enough to have her so enmeshed in our lives and constantly needing support. That’s why she had Tim, in my opinion. He was her husband and he needed to support her. Just because he worked long hours at whatever he did and left her alone a good portion of her waking hours wasn’t my concern. Or Crawford’s. I told him all this in a tear-filled rant that left me thinking that maybe I was losing my mind and perhaps got him to think that might be the case, too.
But despite all that, when Christine calls, Alison answers. Time and time again, she puts her ass on the line and her nose where it doesn’t belong, and it’s not because she and Christine are friends, or because she has a vested interest in solving this particular mystery.
So why was I there? Despite everything, I liked Christine. Did I resent that she had had an excellent adventure abroad while I stayed home, making sure her kids had everything they needed and then some? You betcha. Was I a little perturbed, maybe even jealous, over her easy familiarity with Crawford, such that it wasn’t unusual to see her touch his arm or put her arm around his waist? More than you’ll ever know. Even so, would I wish that brood of little troll-like rug rats on anyone, even my worst enemy? No, and that’s why I was there. She had her own share of troubles, not the least of which was that she was raising little kids all over again, little kids who had sprung from someone else’s womb and who had a host of unformed ideas about what it was to have a stepmother. It made my time with Meaghan and Erin seem like a walk in the park, and trust me, it wasn’t.
Underneath it all, despite all her flaws and her foibles and her insecurities (and maybe even because of all that), Alison knows that helping Christine is The Right Thing To Do. It doesn’t come easily to her, and it in fact takes some considerable effort on her part:
I can’t say I wasn’t a little happy that he was finally as fed up with his ex-wife and her mysterious murder theory as I was; I’d thought she’d come back from London and we’d peacefully coexist, twenty miles between us. Neither of us had banked on the fact that we’d have to deal with her crazy family and the fallout from her brother’s eventual suicide.
I thought back fondly to the time when I was an adult orphan, divorced, with only myself to take care of; it was a time before poisoned dogs, and break-ins, and stepchildren, and ex-wives. Then I remembered the crippling loneliness, and the feeling of coming home to an empty house night after night. The weekend stretches where I only used my voice once, and that was to order a coffee and a bagel at the local deli. The time B.C.: before Crawford.
I finished my soda and threw some money down on the table. The way things were now was the “new normal,” and I was going to have to learn how to deal.
I vowed to myself that I would be the best second wife and stepmother on the planet, even if it killed me.
But in my book, it’s the very fact that it does take effort—that it’s not second nature to her, but that she does it anyway—that makes her a true heroine. One to whom I can relate, and one that’s worth both my time and yours. Your typical Good Samaritan, she’s not—but as a reader, I wouldn’t have her any other way.
Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for The Season E-Zine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.