Reviewed by: Pete Barber
Approximate word count: 70,000-75,000 words
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Julie Buckley lives in Chicago and works as a high school English teacher. She’s published six novels including The Ghosts of Lovely Women, mostly mysteries, although her last novel is YA.
When Jessica Halliday, a nineteen-year-old high school student, is murdered, her English teacher, Teddy Thurber, thinks the girl may have left clues about her killer in a book she received from Jessica a few months earlier. Teddy turns amateur sleuth and the story follows along as she attempts to unmask the killer.
The plot sets up well. Jessica is dead in the first chapter. So why? How? Who’s to blame? Then an interesting twist regarding Jessica’s out of school activities keeps things fresh (not discussed in more detail here to prevent spoiling the story for others). But for large portions of the novel, the plot wasn’t in focus. Far too many words were spent discussing, and drawing parallels between, the actual mystery and the novels and plays being studied in Ms. Thurber’s English class. Couple this with a significant amount of back story detailing an English teacher’s life and chores—grading papers, dealing with free periods, guiding difficult students, extra-curricula study groups—with a lukewarm romance with the new teacher in town, who happens to have professional connections perfectly positioned to fill Teddy Thurber’s resource needs as she tries to work through the clues.
These diversions were of little interest and at times boring. So, for me, the plot lacked substance—without the lessons on what a teacher’s life involves and what Ibsen’s motivations were in his play “A Doll’s House”, the book would have been far shorter. During the course of her investigation, certain characters threaten Teddy Thurber: a stalker, a mysterious dark figure standing at the door of her car (we never did find out what that was all about), and the eventual killer in the final confrontation, but I never once feared for her safety. Solutions were always readily at hand.
I do think if you are a teacher, and more particularly, an English teacher, you’ll get more from the story than I could, because you’ll connect with those aspects of Teddy Thurber’s life and work that were of no interest to this reader.
The writing flowed nicely, and for the first time since I started reviewing for Al, I have zero notes of grammatical or spelling errors—so Ms. Buckley’s receives a well-deserved gold star for excellence in English language.
Rating: *** Three stars