CRISTINA SUMNERS – Familiar Friend

Bantam; paperback original. First printing: August 2006.

   Familiar Friend is the third in a series of mystery adventures in which the two leading characters have an exceeding complicated relationship, which I will get to in a moment. First of all, however, here are the books:

      Crooked Heart. Bantam, hc, October 2002; reprint pb, September 2003.

      Thieves Break In. Bantam, pbo, October 2004.

      Familiar Friend. Bantam, pbo, August 2006.

   There is a long story behind the writing of these books and why it took so long for them to find a publisher. The author hints at it in the Acknowledgments to this one, but then she goes on to say that the story would bore us. As if. But – if I have read this introduction correctly – this, the third book, was the first one written, or at least plotted, and that was back in the 1970s when she was taking courses at Princeton, which is the town upon which her fictitious town of Harton, New Jersey, is modeled.

   Harton being the home of the Reverend Kathryn Koerney and police chief Tom Holder, who are tacitly in love with each other, but neither of whom dares to admit it, even to themselves. Tom Holder is married, but to a wife he does not love, nor does she love him. Kathryn Koerney is all but committed to another man, a rich Englishman named Kit Mallowan. (From what I’ve gathered, Kathryn is equally wealthy, if not wealthier, but I can’t tell you any of the details, this being the only book of the three that I’ve read. I also gather that she met Kit in England, where Book Two took place.)

Familiar Friend

   The setting in Book Three is purely academic, at least in the beginning, given that the body of the chairman of the local university’s Spanish department being found on the driveway leading into St. Margaret’s, a parish church. The man was universally disliked by his colleagues, it is soon revealed, making sure that there are many, many suspects for Holder to interview in the initial stages of the investigation that quickly ensues.

   Curiously enough, however, even though all of these professors, wives, students and the staff, crew and a group of the usual university hangers-on are strongly depicted, with considerable time and energy put into making them distinct individuals (all with motives), and with all of this elaborate background already built and ready to wear, the author seems to forget about (most of) them and concentrates instead on the not-so-minor issue of mysterious disappearance of Holder’s wife, causing the local D.A. to…, and Father Mark to…, and then Kit to…

   I can say no more, but it is a lot of fun. You will have to read it for yourself. Sometimes the leading characters behave like teenagers in their rather complicated dance they perform in establishing their relationships to each other, but it’s all done in such a nicely charming fashion, that I am sure that all but the most surly curmudgeon would not be pleased and object to it.

   The puzzle of the mystery is classically done as well, what with time tables and the shrewdest of plans concocts by the villain(s) involved. The last line has nothing to do with the mystery (as opposed to the Ellery Queen novel I covered not so long ago), but if you care anything at all about the characters, it will make absolutely certain that you will not miss where the next episodic installment of their amusing romance (but not to them) will take them next.

— September 2006

[UPDATE] 05-30-07.  Unfortunately, given the pattern of appearances of books in this series, it looks as though there will still be over a year’s wait.