Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden, authors of the new mystery "Murder in Lascaux" (University of Wisconsin Press) are the kind of people whose lives and accomplishments can provoke only one possible response: pea-green envy. Draine and Hinden, professors emeriti in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary this fall at nearly the same time as the publication of their first joint work of fiction, a literate whodunit set in the Dordogne region of France where they spent their summers for two decades.
The book is worth reading not only for its unusual combination of classic murder-mystery appeal and truly unique, evocative setting, but because it represents an unusual feat of harmonious domestic co-authorship that makes use of a husband and wife's complementary writing skills.
The couple met through a bit of fortuitous office placement. When Draine was a newly hired associate professor, Hinden had just received tenure. "He knocked on my door and offered me some paper clips," says Draine, "and that was it."
Draine specialized in novels, Hinden in modern British and American drama, teaching art and literature through UW's Integrated Liberal Studies program.
The memory of a collegiate hitchhiking trip to the Dordogne region of France prompted Hinden to escort Draine there on vacation in 1983, a trip that would be the first of many. The couple ended up purchasing a second home there, an adventure that serves as the subject of their joint memoir, "A Castle in the Backyard: The Dream of a House in France," published by the UW Press in 2002. A visit to the famed cave paintings in Lascaux on that first 1983 trip planted the seed for what would later become "Murder in Lascaux."
"Murder" features a pair of married sleuths, Toby and Nora Barnes, who finagle their way into a Lascaux tour in much the same way as Draine and Hinden did: by fudging the specifics of their academic research in order to become one of the five selected daily visitors permitted to view the prehistoric art within the cave, which has been closed to the general public since 1963. Draine and Hinden's visit resulted in a bona fide academic article and, as Hinden describes it, "one of the most unforgettable experiences we've ever had."
"I remember the guy shut off the lights and then turned them on all at once, and there we were surrounded by these pictures," says Hinden. But for the fictitious Barneses, that brief moment of darkness provides cover for a shocking murder. It's a classic setup: a killing in an enclosed space with a limited number of suspects, or so it would seem. The endearingly nosy Toby and Nora make credible amateur sleuths, investigating their fellow suspects with the same curiosity as they bring to their antique-hunting (him) and art history research (her).
The result is a brisk, brainy read that's equal parts travelogue and thriller, set in a chateau that houses a few mysteries of its own. The art history research that provides the impetus for the Barnes' trip also furnishes a parallel plot through the diaries of Jenny Marie Cazelle, the painter whose words and images provide a window into late-19th and early-20th century France. This aspect of "Murder" was inspired by the authors' purchase of a small, lovely impressionist painting that now hangs in their Madison abode.
Without stinting on plot, Draine and Hinden bring to bear their deep knowledge of and love for the Dordogne, weaving the art, food, traditions and history of the region into their writing. Draine describes "the four c's that were always part of our experience there: caves, castles, cooking and the Cathars." This last is a medieval sect that figures in "Murder's" plot.
That the book feels like the seamless work of a single author is no coincidence; readers of Draine and Hinden's first mystery will be both entertained and educated by what is clearly a shared passion for the Dordogne and its considerable charms.
Wisconsin seems to be a hotbed of mystery-writing this fall. Middleton resident Kathleen Ernst spent 12 years as a curator at Old World Wisconsin's Living History Museum. She's used her wealth of material to pen a mystery, "The Heirloom Murders" (Midnight Ink), set at Old World Wisconsin and featuring a wealth of local color and lore woven into the plot. Plucky collections curator Chloe Ellefson returns for a second outing as the heroine of "Heirloom"; she first appeared in Ernst's debut mystery, last year's "Old World Murder." Ernst has a resume filled with writing that combines history and narrative, including some of the books in the American Girl series targeted at a younger audience. If you like your murder and intrigue a bit closer to home than la belle France, pick up "The Heirloom Murders."
If you didn't get enough chills and thrills on Halloween, check out Wisconsin author Michael Norman's third, updated edition of "Haunted Wisconsin" (University of Wisconsin Press), a history of all things creepy and inexplicable in the Badger State. Since the first edition in 1980, many of the tales of haunted houses and things that go bump in the night have continued on. The new edition contains updates of these stories along with several new accounts. Norman is a professor emeritus of journalism at UW-River Falls.
Rock the lodge
Because you have not completely resigned yourself to being the type of timid, bourgeois person who only reads things you hear about on National Public Radio, you'll want to attend the Monsters of Poetry's blockbuster Dec. 2 event at the Project Lodge. For a suggested $3 donation at the door, you'll hear readings by no fewer than four poets. Nick Demske, Sandra Beasley and Rebecca Hazelton will all read from their work, and songwriter and poet Jason T. Lewis will be both reading and performing music. In addition to an evening of entertainment, your recession-friendly $3 will also buy you fleeting hipster credibility and a chance to win door prizes.
A volcanic read
As if we didn't have enough to worry about, there is a supervolcano located beneath Yellowstone Park that could erupt at any moment, obscuring the sun with an impenetrable blanket of ash. For now, the pyroclastic explosion is merely the stuff of fiction. Author Mike Mullin's new YA novel, "Ashfall," about a teenage boy trying to survive and reunite with his family in a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape, sounds something like "The Road" for kids who are totally over all that sparkly vampire business. Bring your favorite delightfully black-hearted teenager to Barnes & Noble East on Monday, Nov. 14, at 6 p.m. to hear Mullin read from "Ashfall" and enjoy what is being billed as an "interactive volcanic presentation."