‘Condemned to Repeat’ by Janice MacDonald

Book Reviews

Condemned to Repeat coverReviewed by Ian Goodwillie

A good mystery should wrap you up and hold you tight. It’s a boa constrictor that has you in its clutches, coiling slightly tighter as you turn each page. It’s impossible to get away. More importantly, you don’t want to. For that to happen, you need a hero you can believe in. Or in this case, a heroine.

Condemned to Repeat is the most recent outing for Janice MacDonald’s academic murder magnet and de facto detective, Randy Craig. Trapped perpetually on the periphery of academia, Randy often takes jobs associated with her chosen field but can never seem to land that tenure track position. What she doesn’t seem to have a problem finding are murder victims, which appear in relation to her seemingly innocuous short term positions.

This time, Randy is working at the Rutherford House on a contract to do archival research and web development when a body turns up. Further research into Rutherford House reveals a deeper mystery related to the historical landmark. Randy’s boyfriend, a police officer, becomes part of her investigation and does his best to keep trouble off her back. It’s a running theme in both of their lives.

The idea of the unassuming character who attracts trouble for no real reason in the most innocent places is a staple of the mystery genre. There are twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote that rely on that concept. But the added dimension here is Craig’s almost academic career, the emphasis being on the word almost.

Despite her best efforts, Randy finds herself on the outside of the Ivory Tower ideals of academia looking in. She’s thoroughly unable to find a permanent position within that world so she ends up taking random contract jobs that put her in these odd and unexpected positions. Randy’s frustrations with and love for this aspect of her life are palpable throughout the book. Being stuck on the precipice of academia Randy makes her character feel more relatable.

We’re introduced to Randy’s newest job with the Rutherford House through an evening event at the historical site, the murder mystery event featuring a magician. The murder of one of the servers throws the evening into disarray, something finding an actual corpse at a theatrical event will often do.

It takes a few pages for the story to get really rolling. There are moments when you’re reading and asking yourself if these details relate to the story, if they’re building up to something. They do. At the time, much of what happens in the first few pages seem disparate from the story but as the depth of the mystery comes into focus you see how important some of those details actually are. This is how a good mystery should work.

The other interesting aspect of this book is its setting in Edmonton, Alberta. Given the historical nature of Randy Craig’s current contract position, it seems only fair that the narrative delves deeply into the history of the city it’s set in. Condemned to Repeat is a passport to aspects of Edmonton that some Edmontonians might not even be familiar with, which can potentially be to the detriment of the book.

An Edmonton resident for most of her life, MacDonald is quite familiar with her city from a number of angles. These details add to the sense of realism and make the mystery that much more engaging. The other side of that comes if you’re not as familiar with these details as the author. You find yourself dwelling on details of the city itself, like for example what Die-Nasty is, instead of the mystery.

Fortunately, MacDonald is a pro at using these kinds of details to enhance the story and presents them in a context that the uninitiated can understand, even if you don’t get the exact reference. It’s reminiscent of how effectively Anthony Bidulka works in local references to Saskatchewan locations in his Russell Quant mystery series or Chadwick Ginther to Manitoba ones in his Thunder Road. And it’s never a bad thing to think a bit more about a place and do a little research on your own. These Edmonton name drops force you to take another perspective on a city you think you know or learn something about a place you’ve never been to.

Marni had something to prove with this event. Two or three of the board members had apparently signed up for the mystery dinner. Luckily, Marni’s decision to hire actors from the talented crew who populated the Die-Nasty Live Soap Opera, the improvisational theatre that had flourished for over two decades in town, word was getting around and tickets were selling.

In case you were wondering, Die-Nasty is a live improvised soap opera that’s been running in Edmonton since 1991. Nathan Fillion was once a cast member on a stage that has welcomed guest stars like SNL legend Mike Myers, Fillion’s Firefly co-star Alan Tudyk, SCTV alum Joe Flaherty, and Mark McKinney from The Kids in the Hall.

Condemned to Repeat appears to start slowly but that’s just the author lulling you into a false sense of security. Once it gets rolling, it’s an engaging mystery that you can’t stop reading until you know how it plays out. If this is your first introduction to Janice MacDonald and the world of Randy Craig, you’ll be hooked. Permanently.

Ravenstone | 376 pages |  $16.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-0888014153

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Ian Goodwillie

A former bookseller and well-noted geek, Ian has hosted a radio program that examined the author's life as well as reviewing books and graphic novels for online magazines and TV programs. He lives in Saskatoon.