Picture this, please: It is summer in the picturesque college town of Kent, Vermont. Henrietta Brown, a retired academic, goes for her regular swim at Kent’s town beach on a lovely little lake. She dives from the raft only to discover the college president, in his seersucker suit, staring at her, his body jammed between the barrels supporting the raft, his hair floating around his face, and his hands bound.
Hardly the romance of “Moonlight in Vermont” or the sweetness of maple sugar you were expecting? Welcome to page one of Deadman’s Float, a new mystery novel by Robert Sugarman.
Deadman’s Float is a myth-breaker. Sugarman’s Vermont hills of maples and collegiate architecture frame a hidden picture of anti-Semitism and Klan activity, academic viciousness, and “town-gown” animosities that fly in the face of the Vermont tourist industry’s standard information.
The mystery is set in 1989 and the reader will be struck by the year’s “quaintness.” In a wonderful moment at the start, Henrietta Brown rushes for the payphone to report the murder, only to remember that “Ma Bell” had removed it because of vandalism. For a split second “Where’s her cellphone?” came to my mind, immediately replaced by “Oh, sure, it’s 1989.”
Of course, mainframe computers and PCs are common in Deadman’s Float, but cellphones and the Internet wouldn’t be commonly used until the late 1990s –and Google, iPads, Androids, Facebook, voice and face recognition software and all the other new millennium marvels are just a glimmer away. And nicely so. There’s no techno-wizardry substituted for “the little gray cells” solving the crime. No CSI here.
Kent is small but complicated by its “town” and “gown” sides, which allow for many suspects with different motives. And there are strong characters on both sides. The protagonist Henrietta Brown is the retired Director of the Early Learning Center at Kent College, an elite private school. Sugarman alludes to Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, although Henrietta is no Miss Marple. Unlike Jane Marple, Henrietta has a sex life and she is a highly educated, highly trained professional with jungle instincts. After all, she has survived academia’s infighting.
But she is similar to Jane Marple. Henrietta is unmarried, a village native, and no longer “middle-aged.” (Yet can we call her “old,” even in 1989?) Like Marple, Henrietta is the “inadvertent detective.” Henrietta is a “townie” who crossed the town/gown line into academia by going off to college and returning to work at Kent College. To some she’s a traitor. Active in her community, she knows everyone on both sides of that fence, she knows “things,” and she is not afraid to ask questions—“to snoop” as some would say.
Kent’s Chief of Police Laval wants her to leave police work to the police. Yet, reluctantly, he quickly comes to rely upon her. There’s a nagging sense he has come to this decision too easily, but once you’ve passed that qualm, the rest falls in place. I hope if Laval appears again he’ll be more appropriately upset when he fails to fend off Henrietta’s detective impulses—her snooping.
But there’s so much to snoop about! The murdered president, Albert “Al” Kaplan, was so universally loathed! He was the college’s first Jewish president and a man, it seems, only his widowed wife and his children could have loved. Al tried to build the college to build his career and the hell with everybody else.
The college thrived because of Al’s ambitions. Some on campus liked that, even if they didn’t like Al. Most of the faculty seemed to have disliked Al, some simply because he was “administration.” (Sugarman explores Kent’s academic infighting and it is hoped he will do more of it in future Henrietta Brown mysteries.) But there were other issues. Charles Piersell, a gay faculty member, had borne the brunt of Al’s rage over Piersall’s promoting openly gay academic activities. But, of course, there was more to it than that.
And, then, who knew of President Kaplan’s secret past in New York City during the nineteen sixties, when he was young and people sang songs of “revolution”—and the young took revolution to their hearts? The 1960s’ “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll!” is operative in the 1989 of Deadman’s Float. That perennial favorite, “sex,” provides one of the major backdrops for murder. The sexual appetites of every segment of Kent society—townies, college administrators, faculty, and students—thread their ways through the mystery.
Major characters include a number of students and at least one townie who preys on them. We get a glimpse of the unsavory world of small-market television and national network news. The survival strategies of local business owners are laid out with surprising honesty.
Readers may cringe when one key character, the student Julie, plays detective. Julie is horribly naïve. With her fellow student Peter, who is puppy-like in his adoration of her, Julie decides she also wants to play detective, as Sugarman writes, like Nancy Drew. But where at least Henrietta is mature and somewhat worldly as an amateur sleuth, Julie is not. Henrietta is curious, dangerously so for the killer, as well as for herself. But she is aware of the danger and cautious. Julie simply rushes in, maddeningly deciding to question the president’s assistant, who even more maddeningly answers her questions! Although this does provide information, it makes a reader want to scream.
Importantly, Henrietta is wise. She recognizes that while Al’s actions have justifiably generated dislike even hatred of him, some in the community loath him simply because he is Jewish. Henrietta has grown up knowing the locals who don’t like what has happened to “their America,” and in particular the large Jewish population at the Kent College. Henrietta knows they see Kent College as a symbol of it all, what with its arrogant, liberal faculty, its gays, its nonwhite students and, now, its Jewish president.
With Al’s murder, the teacher Henrietta learns about her community. From Al’s personal assistant she learns of the unsigned hate letters Al had received; from Chief Laval of the unsigned anti-Semitic tirades the local newspaper receives but won’t publish. With time, they both learn of Kent’s white power movement, Klan activity and the depth of anti-Semitism in Kent. It is bone chilling.
That anti-Semitism is something about which Mort Levine and his family know. Mort, locally born and raised, is a devout Jew, who runs a local supermarket, is active in the chamber and civic organizations, and, like Solomon, has a wise and discerning heart. Mort has suffered in silence for years while fully aware of the anti-Semitism and the Klan activity in Kent. His son is of a new generation that will not be silenced by the bigotry. In a poignant scene, Mort contends with the fear and anger of his son, who has bought a pistol for self-defense. There is a richness in Mort and we want to know more about him.
But Henrietta is our hero and after Al’s death, she and Laval are confounded by more murder, set against the backdrop of Kent. In Henrietta, Bob Sugarman has created the bridge between the town and the college, using her to explore the tension of interdependency existing between the two, as well as the academic infighting, the drug use and sexual predation on the campus, the racial hatred in the town, and those other well-guarded secrets that make for a good whodunit.
Sugarman, with a long history as a playwright, gives us very good dialog—his characters sound natural and different from one another—and that dialog propels the reader forward. His characters are complex, although sometimes you want a cast of characters listed at the beginning! I have only alluded to some of the major actors in this interplay of small-town murder and madness. Moonlight in Vermont—falling bodies everywhere!
So, let me recommend that you quickly get a copy of Deadman’s Float, find a good nook in your home, grab a cup of tea or a snifter of brandy, and enjoy a delightful mystery!
Deadman’s Float, a Henrietta Brown Mystery novel by Robert Sugarman; published by Puck Press, is available in paperback at bookstores and on Amazon.com.