At the 26th annual Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland, next weekend, three fine mystery writers will be honored by their peers and by their readers with Lifetime Achievement Awards. Dorothy Cannell, Joan Hess and Margaret Maron all have long lists of credits to their name, and they richly deserve their honors.
To observe the occasion, I thought we might look back at the first novel written by one of these three authors: Margaret Maron's One Coffee With. Maron is best known for her later series of mysteries about Judge Deborah Knott. But before those books, Maron wrote an eight-book series about a New York City Police Lieutenant, Sigrid Harald. The first of those books, appearing in 1981, was One Coffee With, and it was Maron's first full-length novel - she had been a short story writer before then. It is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you may listen to the complete review by clicking here.
The mystery and the murder take place in the art department of the fictional Vanderlyn College in New York City. The deputy chairman of the department, Professor Riley Quinn, an art historian, takes a cup of coffee into his office…drinks it…and dies, having been poisoned with potassium dichromate, a chemical used in the art department’s printmaking workshop.
Lieutenant Harald arrives, along with her assistant, Detective Tilden, to begin her investigation of the murder. The first thing she will learn is that practically anyone in the department – certainly among the faculty, but also including a couple of the students and even a member of the building and grounds crew – had excellent reasons to hate Professor Quinn, and little reason to mourn his death.
The main problem – and it’s really a classic puzzle – centers around that poisoned coffee. It seems that the coffee must have been poisoned and placed on the tray that held everyone’s coffee. But – of course – nobody saw that happen. And how could the killer have known that Professor Quinn would take that particular cup…or was it not meant for him at all?
These are the questions Lieutenant Harald and her assistants must answer. The story is more along the lines of a classic mystery than a police procedural, and it is quite well and believably done. Sigrid Harald is a strong character, and part of the book focuses on her role as a woman in a job that, until that time, had been filled almost exclusively by men. Maron writes with grace and wit, and her observations of the academic rivalries at Vanderlyn College are both funny and quite perceptive.
One Coffee With has been republished in a new trade paperback edition from Oconee Spirit Press. It includes a new introduction by Margaret Maron explaining how the book came to be - and, for that matter, how she became a much-honored mystery writer. I think you'll enjoy it.