Murder at Canterbury Faire by Sharon Laborde
Author Sharon Freeman Laborde has written a new novel, Murder At Canterbury Faire, that is simultaneously familiar and fascinating, a difficult trick to pull off.
Our familiarity begins with lead character Dr. Emily Goldman, a not quite elderly "short and round, grey-haired, and pleasant woman" who teaches Medieval Studies at scenic yet oddly foreboding Merryvale College. We know from the start that "Dr. Emily" will follow the well-worn path travelled by Jane Marple, Jessica Fletcher, and Aunt Dimity, among many (many) other amateur detectives. These cozy archetypes are all well educated, intuitive, and often employed in jobs that bring them into constant contact with other residents of their town and the surrounding region. Here, Dr. Emily is the beloved and popular power behind all things in the College's English Department.
Like other amateur detectives, Dr. Emily has a contact on the police force. In Canterbury it is handsome Jess Thornton, the Merryvale College Police Chief; Jess gives Dr. Emily access to important information about the case at hand. Otherwise dismissed by the authorities as nosy busybodies, particularly if they are middle-aged or elderly women, the detectives in cozy mysteries are thus left free to eavesdrop, gather clues, and use their native intelligence and intuitive feel for the social dynamics of the community to solve the crime. Dr. Emily's dismissive authority figure is the pompous Department Chairman, Dr. Basil Bowen. And yes, she gathers clues, eavesdrops, and uses her native intelligence to guide herself, and Chief Thornton, to solve the murder.
Central to the first half of the novel are preparations for the College's annual Canterbury Faire, a reenactment of Chaucer's Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. The characters in Laborde's novel choose to be characters from Chaucer's tale, and will recite lines of the Prologue as they ride on horseback into the Faire. What fascinates about Laborde's Canterbury is how her characters intertwine with Chaucer's. Thus, the Wife of Bath and Administrative Assistant Glenda McWilliams are both lusty and generous, the Prioress and Elise Bowen are both beautiful and not quite what they seem, the Clerk and Judson Sharp are both scholarly, impoverished readers, and so on.
Laborde also adopts Chaucer's largely linear story telling style, with one story following another; plot hardly matters because what we're really interested in are the relationships between and among the cast of characters. Summarily, Chaucer and Laborde describe, not tales to be told, but the people who will tell them, making it clear that the "real" story depends on the characters rather than on the unfolding crime and solution. It is really quite fascinating and interesting.
In a recent interview, Laborde described how she came to write Murder At Canterbury Faire:
"I started seriously thinking about the character of Dr. Emily Goldman about ten years ago. She slowly developed a personality, and I decided I wanted her to be the main character in a mystery set on a small campus in central Alabama.
" I also wanted to address some of the issues that trouble the academic world, such as sexual harassment and theft of intellectual property. I decided to locate the campus in my home state of Alabama because I love writing about the South, and the fictional Merryvale College is very similar to the small liberal arts college I attended many years ago. I felt I could create a mood and a sense of place by writing about an area I know so well."
Murder At Canterbury Faire is available at Cahaba Press, at Amazon.com, and better bookstores everywhere.