Ex-FLC professor pokes academia in whodunit

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Shaila Van Sickle Publishing

As a voracious mystery reader, I abhor reviewers who insist on rehashing every plot point, because where’s the fun in that?

The whole point of a great mystery is the journey, getting to know the characters, trying to figure out the clues and following the ins and outs of plotting by a (hopefully) clever author.

Fort Lewis College Professor Emeritus Shaila Van Sickle spent more than a decade writing what I hope will be the first of a series, Seven Characters in Search of an Author, many of those years in collaboration with the late Doreen Mehs. The title, a take on the 1921 Luigi Pirandello play “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” is meant as a gentle homage by the former English and linguistics professor.

I don’t want to spoil the plot too much, but the setup is this: Someone at the fictional Southwestern College, which is set in northern New Mexico, has written a mystery and submitted it to a contest, potentially winning a $50,000 grant for the school and a publishing contract for the author.

Unfortunately, the author used a nom de plume, and the college can’t receive the grant until a committee identifies the writer. Oh, and did I mention what appears to be a veiled threat toward the president in the book’s plot that has all involved at least a little concerned?

Unlike the recent novel taking on the Animas-La Plata Project by former Sen. Gary Hart, where local characters are so thinly veiled, it becomes somewhat farcical, Van Sickle’s characters seem a bit more of a blend of personalities although definitely familiar as academics I have known at FLC.

Van Sickle sees all her characters through a caring lens, but she doesn’t hesitate to take a poke or two at those professors who want to skip the process and proceed right to tenure.

Perhaps the only character who is recognizable as an actual person is Southwestern College President Walt Asher, affectionately modeled on former FLC President Joel Jones.

Jones seems to have taken it in good fun by writing a blurb for the cover, and he will introduce Van Sickle tonight at her book signing at Maria’s Bookshop.

A number of Van Sickle’s former colleagues at the college have told me that she got the characters and the dialogue just right, nailing the committee meetings, the pressures on professors and the overall environment. It certainly feels real to the reader.

It took me about 10 pages to get into Seven Characters, but from there on, the book was a thoroughly enjoyable read. With the culture of the Four Corners as part of the plot, and Durango and Southwest Colorado making frequent appearances, it’s perfect for those who want a little something local in their reading and those who just enjoy a good conundrum.

Van Sickle didn’t feel the need to add gore, include gratuitous sex or have an ever-expanding body count; she just built the plot with real, regular, believable people trying to figure out a puzzle.

How refreshing!

abutler@durangoherald.com