Scott D. Parker
The books of Leslie Meier first popped onto my radar in 2020 when John McDougall of Murder by the Book here in Houston binge read them. But I didn’t read any. Last fall when I searched for a mystery to read during the Halloween season, I saw her name again. Didn’t bite. Even when John selected Easter Bunny Murder earlier this year as part of Murder by the Book’s excellent subscription service [There are 3 options; have a look], I still didn’t start a Meier book.
But I have now.
I’m a seasonal reader. When it’s summer, I want a summer-type book. Ditto for the holidays, so when September rolled around, I got to think “I bet Leslie Meier has a Labor Day book.” Well, she doesn’t, but she’s got the next best thing as illustrated by the title: Back to School Murder.
A Great Marketing Hook
Starting in 1991 (!) with Mistletoe Murder, nearly every book in the Lucy Stone series revolves around a holiday. Chances are pretty good that you could go through and entire year’s worth of holidays and there’d be a Lucy Stone mystery ready for you. It’s a great marketing strategy and I wonder if Meier had that in mind from the jump or if it was an organic process.
A Delightfully Real Protagonist
Lucy Stone is her amateur detective, but that’s not all she is. In Back to School Murder—published in 1997, it’s the fourth book in the series—she is a forty-year-old woman, wife, and mother of four kids whose ages range from younger high school to toddler. Her husband, Bill, is a carpenter who specializes in restorations.
As the story opens, Lucy is filling in (for a friend who is helping her mom with chemo) as a reporter for The Pennysaver, a weekly publication for the small town of Tinker’s Cove. Up until the reporter gig, she is a stay-at-home mom who finds herself at a crossroad of life: is being a mom and wife all there is? The reporter job gives her a glimpse of a life beyond the home and one she puts to good use when a bomb goes off in the school.
Yeah, I’ll admit that for a book published in 1991, a bomb in a school struck close to home as I was reading in 2022. But the bomb was only a part of the story. It turns out that one of the teachers, Carol Crane, is seen rescuing a handicapped boy who somehow was not evacuated with the rest of the children. And it’s just in time, for no sooner did all the bystanders see Carol running out of the building that the windows are shattered.
Imagine Lucy’s surprise, however, when a few days later—and after a contentious school board meeting in which Carol stepped on a few toes—the news comes in that Carol was murdered in her bed. Now, Lucy the reporter starts to work on the tribute for the paper…and things don’t add up.
A Murder in the Middle of Real Life
Well, like every good amateur sleuth, Lucy starts to look for more information, sifting through new clues, trying to find out more about Carol and her past. But here’s a key aspect of this book: Lucy does all of this around her real life. There were chunks of this book where Meier just followed Lucy in her night school class or dealing with sick children, the mystery not even top of Lucy’s mind.
Turns out, I rather enjoyed that aspect of the story. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Lucy Stone is a fun protagonist, a real person, not some super detective or stalwart police officer. She does what most of us would like to think we’d do: keep asking questions. Partly it’s to protect her community, but it’s also to find the truth. I liked it when she was just a mom taking care of the kids. I liked it when she gossiped with her friends. I liked it when real life interfered with her tracking down the killer.
In fact, I liked this story so much that I’m already looking for the next holiday so I can return to Tinker’s Cove. And with 28 books, I’ll have many happy visits.
Funny History Realization
As an aside, I had to laugh when Lucy’s editor hand carried a floppy disk to the printers so the weekly issue of the Pennysaver could be published. What mad me laugh was my own realization of just how far we’ve come since 1991. When I read a book from the 1940s, for examples, I intrinsically know that there are no cellphones or internet or computers. But somehow, with the somewhat modern setting of this 1991 mystery, I had forgotten that the internet barely existed in that year. And yeah, you couldn’t just email a file to the printer.
My how times have changed.
It's been awhile since I wrote about my enrollment in Cozy College. Start here, then keep going here.
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