G. M. Malliet’s Death at the Alma Mater was the book my mystery book group chose to read in October, a month before I started up The Poisoned Martini.
My parents had picked up a signed copy of this book for me at one of last year’s American Library Association conferences. The author spoke at the conference on the topic of how many characters to feature in a mystery story. Death at the Alma Mater includes 24 characters in cast list. Because I have a tendency to use a lot of characters in my stories, I was very much looking forward to reading this book.
The story centers on a select group of graduates from the fictitious St. Michael’s College at Cambridge. These alums are invited to a special reunion, which the dons of the college plan on using as an unabashed fundraiser. Unfortunately, one of the guests–disliked by many–is murdered. A scandal the college can’t afford. Inspector St. Just (from Malliet’s previous novel) is called in to solve the case.
The novel is set up in classic mystery fashion. We’re introduced to our victim and the pool of suspects, who all have a potential motive, and presented with the murder. The inspector then interrogates each suspect in turn to determine the sequence of events leading up to and after the murder.
The characters were well-drawn and distinctive. The problem, however, is that much of the novel is taken up by the interrogations and there is very little story or investigation prior to the rather incredulous denouement. I hope not to give away too much here, but…the motive for the crime was excellent; the execution of the murder was absurd. Two words: blow-up doll. That’s all I’m saying.
I liked the interrogation sequence here. The characters really came alive in their interactions with St. Just. I just would have liked more story/investigation. After the interrogations, the story seemed rushed and wrapped up too quickly. Also, there was at least one character, introduced in the second half of the story, who didn’t seem to have any purpose!
As I said before, I enjoy a bounty of characters. Current mysteries seem to have too few characters as suspects; sometimes series characters outnumber said suspects. So it was great to see how an author handles numerous characters. I know some readers have difficulty keeping everyone straight, but that should not be a problem in Death at the Alma Mater. See what you think and give this one a try.