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The Maltese Manuscript    by Joanne Dobson order for
Maltese Manuscript
by Joanne Dobson
Order:  USA  Can
Poisoned Pen, 2003
* *   Reviewed by Nina de Angeli

A dame walked in, bringing Trouble with her. The dame is a celebrity mystery author famous for her daring, hard-boiled female detective, and Trouble is her Rottweiler bodyguard. Dobson's tongue-in-cheek take on classic noir opens The Maltese Manuscript with a wink. Clever cover art sets the mood with a reproduction of the original black and yellow design of Hammett's Maltese Falcon.

English professor Karen Pelletier is back with the fifth entry in Dobson's series, set in a seemingly idyllic small New England college town lurching out of a snowy winter into a muddy spring. This time Karen is researching early crime fiction for a conference of the sort that creates clouds of the academic jargon skewered so aptly by Dobson. Her research is rudely interrupted by a series of rare book thefts from the library's locked rooms, including the priceless Maltese Falcon manuscript. Is the thief a crazed bibliomaniac, or a resentful and underpaid librarian?

Suave college president Mitchell hires handsome, slick private eye Dennis O'Hanlon, a forgotten friend of Karen's from high school days, for a private, publicity-free investigation into the puzzling burglaries. Meanwhile one of Karen's more troubled students stumbles across, what else, a body in the library! Shades of Agatha Christie! While Lt. Charlie Piotrowski and his crew work methodically through the available evidence looking for a murderer, Karen's relationship with Charlie, built up nicely in previous books in the series, undergoes considerable strain when she befriends his chief suspect.

The mystery provides few surprises and a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, but Dobson's sly humor and engaging characters are the real strengths of this book. Bibliophiles will enjoy the background on the antiquarian crime fiction market, and fans of the series will want to revisit Karen and her off-beat friends. Likable though she is, it's a wonder to me how Karen expects to get tenure when she spends so much time off campus chasing clues.

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