Monday, February 10, 2014

Grey Howl by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

Note:  I was given a copy of this book by the author, with no stipulations attached. It did not affect my review.

Graduate student Dulcie Schwartz has even more on her plate than usual.  She’s the university liaison for the ELLA conference, in which the Big Names in English Literature will be gathering to present their papers.  Dulcie will be presenting one too, albeit in a decidedly more humble setting. The big problem is managing all the visiting scholars, all of whom seem to have their own agendas. At least some of them are in the running for the job as department head, a position now occupied by Dulcie’s advisor, Dr. Thorpe – and one he would like to keep.  Things get off to a rocky start as various prickly personalities start showing up, often bringing a lot of old grudges along with them.  Then one of the star academics has her presentation stolen, accusations are thrown, threats are made, an untimely death occurs, and the unearthly howl that sounded in the previous book is back to slice through the night.
At least things seem to be looking up in Dulcie’s personal life. Her boyfriend Chris is working more regular hours, giving them time to be together.  Dulcie feels she’s making great progress with her thesis.  She’s found some leads as to the identity of the mysterious Unknown Author, thanks to some genealogical help from another student, and now not one but two professors have expressed interest in the work. It should be a boost to her career—unless one or the other of professors has an ulterior motive.

Since Dulcie’s thesis is on an 18th century gothic novelist, it’s only fitting that a few of the chapters begin with what could be an excerpt from that author: vivid descriptions of stormy skies and sickly dawns, lurking Evil, ghostly presences, sputtering tapers, and ghastly howls in the ebon darkness.  It’s no wonder that Dulcie’s imagination sometimes runs away with her.  In the real world, though, things are no less dramatic: Stella Roebuck, the prima donna presenter who dresses to mirror her subject matter, seems determined not to let anyone upstage her.  There’s also some gossip that she has at least two ex-lovers attending the convention.  And there is a LOT of gossip going on! Like most places, academia seems to run on rumor. 

Then of course, there’s the fact that Dulcie’s deceased cat, Mr. Grey, is still hanging around to keep an eye on his favorite human kitten.  She hears his voice at odd times, offering cryptic advice and comfort.  Her current cat, Esme, also communicates—but definitely on her own terms.  She is, after all, a Principessa.  Dulcie’s mother also gets into the act, calling with warnings gleaned from dreams, tea leaves, and other such methods. 

This entry in the series reminded me of a traditional village mystery.  A reader doesn’t need to know much about literary criticism or academic settings to enjoy this one, and many of the clues are handled the way Agatha Christie would have done:  through gossip.  The trick is to sort the true from the false.  There’s a small population of suspects in one general area, and almost everyone can be a suspect.  It’s just all draped with some otherworldly trappings, though the mysteries are NOT solved through supernatural intervention. As with most of my favorite books, it’s the characters I enjoy most.  Dulcie is the modern day gothic heroine, sometimes rushing in or jumping to conclusions, while trying to be logical.  Chris is the steady hand, ready to help.  The cats are a delight, especially Esme who, like many cats, perceives herself to be the center of the universe and gets her dainty little nose out of joint if this isn’t recognized. The supporting cast members always add their bit, from Dulcie’s New Age mother to Griddlehaus the librarian. (You knew I’d have to mention the librarian, didn’t you?) I did have the sense that groundwork is being laid for the next book, but this doesn’t interfere with the pleasure of reading this one.

Finally, I really like the way that Simon pays sincere homage to the gothic tradition while having a lot of fun with it.  Some books end up making it all way too silly, too over-the –top, but Simon never does.  There’s no deep message, unless you want to say that it’s to enjoy books and literature for what they are.

As regular readers will know, I’m one of those who prefers to read a series in order. However, I think this is a book that can be read and enjoyed without having read others in the series.

The other titles in the series are:
  1. Shades of Grey
  2. Grey Matters
  3. Grey Zone
  4. Grey Expectations
  5. True Grey
  6. Grey Dawn

1 comment:

  1. thank you so much for reading, Jeanne! And… I can now share with you and your readers that Severn House has offered me a contract for two more Dulcies. There's also one in the works that I am VERY proud of (to be called "Stages of Grey"), so I hope you are up for an eighth, ninth, and tenth outing.