Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Escape from East Egg: The Madeline Dare Series by Cornelia Read

A Field of Darkness (2006)
The Crazy School (2008)

Madeline Dare comes from a family whose money "is so old there's none left." However, since her debutante days, she's traded in WASP-y breeding for a working class husband and a home in the decidedly unglamorous Syracuse. She's happy with the former, less so with the latter.

The first book, A Field of Darkness begins when Madeline's beloved, moneyed cousin, Lapthorne Townsend, is linked to a decades-old double murder. She decides to sniff out the evidence before ratting out a family member, and quickly finds herself in over her head. There are plenty of people in Syracuse who'd rather keep the case buried, and Madeline's discoveries prove dangerous, and sometimes fatal, to the people who help with her sleuthing.

Though the prose sometimes gets a little rangy and ponderous, Read's first novel introduces a snarky, sharp heroine made of surprisingly tough stuff. Add to that some really nice observations about how the very rich are different from you and me, and a plot that consistently ventures into the unexpected, and I was eager to see what the lovely Mrs. Dare would get up to next.

In The Crazy School, Madeline and her husband, Dean, have left Syracuse in the wake of events from the previous book, and Madeline is working off her survivor's guilt by teaching at a school for disturbed teenagers.

The school is run by the creepy, yet charismatic David Santangelo, who insists that students and staff alike submit to group and individual therapy and a bevy of odd restrictions -- no caffeine, no use of the "f" word (Santangelo lets them cuss a blue streak in class, but believes the word "fuck" is "fundamentally linked to violence against women").

Madeline cares deeply about her students, but finds herself stymied by colleagues who seem to have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid, and are only marginally more stable than their charges.

Then a student confides in Madeline about his pregnant girlfriend, Fay. Fay is days away from turning 18, and then the two of them can leave the school and try to start a life together -- but only if their secret stays safe. Madeline agrees to help them, but on the night of Fay's birthday, the couple is found dead in what initially appears to be a suicide pact. However, Madeline thinks otherwise and goes to the police with her suspicions, only to be arrested for the murders.

When she's released on insufficient evidence, Madeline sets out to clear her name and find the real killer, despite the advice of her well-heeled attorney (wealthy connections sometimes have their advantages). With the help of a few colleagues and students, none of whom she's entirely sure she can trust, Madeline begins to dig up dirt on the school, and discovers enough hidden agendas and ugly secrets to fill a truck -- but everything depends on which version of the story is true.

Read does an excellent job of casting suspicion on all of the book's supporting characters, which is especially effective since Madeline isn't the most circumspect of crime heroines. Each time she confides in a colleague or a student, you'll be cringing with worry over which of them will use the information to stab her in the back.

I was introduced to Read's work through her story, "Hungry Enough" in the recent noir collection A Hell of a Woman, a nasty little piece of intrigue about Hollywood wives. In the Madeline Dare books, Read's gift for pithy dialogue, edgy plots, and suspenseful twists can stretch out and get comfy -- although no promises that readers will be. Very tense stuff.

If you like amateur sleuth novels, but prefer them out of the rose garden and into the alley, this book is for you.

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