2017-06-15 / Arts & Entertainment News

Teacher turned sleuth stirs up suspects in feel-good murder mystery

FLORIDA WRITERS

¦ “Murder is Chartered” by Diane Weiner. Cozy Cat Press. 180 pages. Trade paperback, $14.95; E-book, $2.99.

Coral Springs writer Diane Weiner has at least one thing in common with her protagonist in the Susan Wiles Schoolhouse Mystery series: They are both veteran public school teachers who keep busy.

Susan, now retired, keeps occupied by volunteering in a new charter school. She also has a nose for mysteries, much to the chagrin of her daughter Lynette, who is a bona fide police detective. Driving home after a long stint at the Westbrook Charter School’s open house, Susan slams into a woman’s body, snaps to full wakefulness and calls Lynette.

Ms. Weiner, who teaches at Millennium Middle School in Tamarac, keeps extra busy by writing novels about Susan. This is No. 8.

Susan thinks she is guilty of vehicular homicide, but it turns out that the deceased was strangled to death and then dropped off a bridge onto the road below where Susan struck her. The victim is a neighbor, Melissa Chadwick. So the how has been determined, but the why and the identity of the murderer are mysteries that Susan will not be able to leave alone.


WEINER WEINER The fall-winter holiday season is moving into rural New York, but the town of Westbrook is not yet ready to be jolly. The author uses settings involving holiday preparation on both the family and community level to introduce a surprisingly large cast of characters (given the brevity of the novel) and to establish a normal atmosphere of goodwill against which this exceptional crime looms large.

Visiting relatives, desired and not, complicate the lives of Susan and her husband, Mike.

The town has been unsettled of late in other ways. There are suspicions about the business practices of Agrowmex, an important company headed by the murder victim’s husband, Matthew, who has pushed into Westbrook in a big way. In spite of his wife’s rather shaky credentials, he managed to get her appointed as assistant principal in the charter school (which he largely funds). And he’s bringing in outsider employees to work the Agrowmex farming plant. These workers, to some minds, are not the right kind of residents for their town.

Perhaps there was a plan to teach the Chadwick couple a lesson, but it went too far. It goes even further when Matthew is also murdered.

There had been other troubles at Agrowmex, most notably the signs that cattle had been illegally slaughtered on the property.

While Susan can offer up several suspects on the basis of motive, each ends up having an alibi that is reasonably airtight. Of course, by pushing herself into the investigation, Susan makes herself a potential target — and she even receives a threat.

The charm of this novel, the elements that put it in the “cozy mystery” category, include portraits of Lynette as a young mother in a strong marital relationship raising two beautiful children, and the way in which Susan dotes on her grandchildren (just as she does on her daughter and son). She also has a growing and glowing relationship with her birth father, a man she has only recently come to know.

Susan’s birth mother is another story. Audra has hooked up with an ex-con who is returning to a life of crime and abusing Audra, who can’t bring herself to deal with the situation — or even admit to it. The author’s portrait of Audra’s painful life of victimhood and denial is particularly moving. Her criminal husband is a threat to the community in which he intends to settle.

Another blight on the community of Westbrook is the growth of illegal narcotics use and distribution. Addiction could be behind the murders.

Ms. Weiner’s scenes that take place at the school and particularly in the classroom are, as we might expect from a writer who is also a teacher, authoritative and engaging. Yet the new charter school is oddly at the center of the town’s troubles. Westbrook Charter focuses this dangerous tension between being an incubator of good citizenship and also all the elements that threaten it: self-interest, prejudice, naivety and deceit.

Ms. Weiner does a fine job of keeping up the suspense, building her key characters and orchestrating the revelation of crucial information. She conveys the utopian and dystopian faces of small town America with passion and skill, while keeping the novel entertaining and ultimately upbeat.

To learn more about the author, visit www.dianeweinerauthor.com. ¦

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