Murder in C Major

St. Martin’s Press, 1986; Worldwide, 1988. Now available as an ebook.

Also a trade paperback from Poisoned Pen Press. ISBN: 1-890208-31-0. $14.95
Poisoned Pen Press Missing Mystery #17 April, 2000

Reviews

“‘Ironing for a corpse wasn’t Joan Spencer’s idea of fun.’ With an opening sentence like that, you surely have to read on. You won’t be sorry. Murder in C Major . . . is a nifty first mystery, unpretentious yet nonetheless impressive in its quiet way. . . a virtuoso debut by a new writer.”–Washington Post Book World.

Murder in C Major is a thoroughly nice mystery with an amiable pair of detectives. It is recommended for those who enjoy a comfortable read on a long winter’s night.”–Wilson Library Bulletin

“Murder in C Major, by Sara Hoskinson Frommer (St. Martin’s, $14.95). A fine first novel about a middle-age widow who joins the local symphony as a viola player just in time for the first oboe to turn up his toes in what seems to be a heart attack. It turns out to be murder–and so does the death of the flutist.”–Henry Kisor, Book Editor, Chicago Sun-Times.

“Miss Frommer, through Joan Spencer’s eyes, testifies that small-town America, despite the changes on its surface, is still rock-solid.”–Pat Phillips, Mysteries, Washington Times

“A chatty, easygoing and conventional first novel . . .Why C major? Because Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, with its great oboe solo in the second movement, is integral to the story.”–New York Times Book Review

Murder in C Major is Sara Hoskinson Frommer’s first mystery and it is excellent. The author shows a comfortable acquaintance with classical music, orchestral instruments (particularly strings and reeds), state-of-the-art biological research (as implemented in underfunded, ill-equipped college laboratories), and people of all sorts. Occasionally one wonders where mystery writers find the prototypes of their characters. Frommer’s characters are so lifelike that the question never arises. . . . The story is loaded with cogent information and irresistible characters. Don’t miss Murder in C Major. It’s a winner.”–Shirley Peterson, Reviewer’s Window, Schenectady, NY Gazette.

“Here we have a first novel from a promising American mystery writer. . . . The man characters are interesting, and there is a good flavor of small-town life and a convincing amount of detail about both music and science.”–Linda Brinson, Winston-Salem Journal.

“A charmer of a murder mystery. . . . The characters are typical of people in any small town, or big city for that matter; you don’t just recognize, you can feel them. One episode, with the bassoonist, is so vivid with insight it could stand on its own as a humorous character description. In fact, Frommer sees many of her characters through eyes that discern the funny side of human foibles.

“Frommer’s writing style flows with simple, well-tuned ease and the story moves along quickly to its ‘murder re-enactment’ climax. She writes knowledgeably about the workings of a symphony orchestra, and she did her homework on certain scientific aspects of the plot. . . .

“Another Joan Spencer-Fred Lundquist adventure from Sara Frommer would be welcome.”–Elizabeth Winkler, Sunday Herald-Times, Bloomington IN

“This middle-aged heroine and her handsome partner are refreshing, even though the plot they move in is a little too intricate and overly neat.”–Publishers Weekly

“A pleasantly unassuming, tidily plotted debut . . . All in all: too heavy on the music minutiae for general consumption, but the small-town background rings true–as do smart, refreshingly normal Joan and Fred. A return visit would be welcome.”–Kirkus

Excerpt

Excerpt from Murder in C Major:

“Hey, Lundquist, get your phone.”

Fred Lundquist smoothed his thinning blond hair, flicked a crumb from his gray lapel, and covered the distance from the coffee pot to his desk in three long strides.

“Lieutenant Lundquist.”

“Fred, Sam Wade’s holding for you. He’s come up with a weird one. Do what you can with it–he asked for you.” Captain Warren Altschuler, chief of detectives, was a realist.

Lundquist waited for the click and answered again.

“Lundquist.”

“Fred, this is Sam Wade. I’d appreciate it if you’d respond to a complaint for me.”

“What’s up?”

“Probably nothing, but officially I’m asking you to look into a suspected homicide. George Petris died last night in emergency. You know him?”

“The Greek restaurant?”

“No, this one’s a professor, but I knew him from the orchestra. He collapsed in the middle of last night’s rehearsal. A couple of people took him to emergency and he died almost as soon as they got him there–the hospital says heart. One of the fellows who took him over is convinced he was poisoned with some Japanese fish. Yoichi Nakamura–our manager–very conscientious, but it sounds to me as if he’s off the deep end on this one. I have to respond, though. I sat next to Petris, for Christ’s sake.”

“Yeah, sure, I’ll check it out. You want to spell those names for me?”

Sam spelled them.

Keep the public happy for the politicians. Wade didn’t think there was anything to it, but he didn’t mind tying up your day proving it to a worrywart. Lundquist picked up the phone again and dialed.

“Mr. Nakamura? Detective Lieutenant Lundquist, Oliver Police Department. The prosecutor asked me to investigate your problem. Yes. I’d like to come over to ask you some questions. Your address . . . ? I’ll be there.”

He didn’t hurry. The whole thing sounded like a hand-holding job, not an investigation, and it wasn’t the first time he’d had that sort of call recently. At fifty, a Democratic fish in stagnant Republican waters, Fred Lundquist knew he’d never make captain, much less chief. He’d long since lost any illusions about the merit system. His outstanding record in his years of big-city experience had little to do with the realities of starting over in a place like Oliver. Party aside, being anything other than an Oliver native counted against him. If Wade really suspected a homicide, particularly one that a good detective could get credit for cracking, he’d call on a Deckard, not a Lundquist. In the near-campus traffic, he took his time and meditated on the advantages of taking an early retirement.

He could afford it. The divorce had left him remarkably unencumbered. No child support, not even alimony. She had the house . . . he’d probably never be able to swing a house again. If she’d stuck it out, if they’d had kids . . . if. He’d thought moving back to a smaller town would help, but even here she couldn’t take being a cop’s wife. Or could she? Maybe she just couldn’t take Fred Lundquist. He wasn’t all that fond of himself some days.

A lot of guys had small businesses set up, more in preparation for retirement than anything else. You could see some of them becoming more and more involved in their moonlighting–and less and less effective on the job. Burned out as he was feeling, he didn’t think he could hold his head up if he let that happen. Not that he had anything to worry about. The closest thing to moonlighting he had going was the occasional sourdough he baked for Catherine’s Catering. In his present mood, slapping the loaves around appealed to him in a therapeutic sort of way–but a future of nothing but baking? He shuddered.

He turned into the narrow street and swerved to avoid four Muslim girls, heads covered and long skirts swaying gracefully as they walked to class, oblivious to sidewalks and oncoming traffic. Ten years ago, he thought, a group like that would have turned heads. Now they were commonplace. Foreign oil was flooding even this small college town with new students.

Nakamura was waiting for him on the front porch of the rambling house. They passed half a dozen mailboxes by the front door and climbed two flights to an apartment carved out of an attic. At five-eleven, Lundquist could stand erect only in the center of the single room, furnished even more sparsely than his own place. Nakamura slipped out of his shoes so smoothly that Lundquist almost missed it. For a moment he considered following suit, but he repressed the impulse. Nakamura seemed not to notice. From a corner he brought a large cushion covered in rough cotton.

“Please forgive me. I almost never have visitors. If you are uncomfortable, I will be happy to borrow a chair from my neighbors. Will you have some tea with me?”

“Thank you. This is just fine.” Lundquist planted both feet on the floor and leaned forward, ignoring the peculiar angle of his knees. “Suppose you tell me what happened.”

“It was during the orchestra rehearsal last night,” Nakamura said, kneeling on the floor, his back straight. “The first half was just a rehearsal. No problem. George–Mr. Petris–was playing very well. He usually did. I spoke to him during the break at eight-thirty and he was fine then, too. But when we started again, he couldn’t play and almost dropped his instrument. A viola player drove him to the hospital and I went along to help. He died only a few moments after we arrived.”

“Did a doctor see him?”

“Yes, Dr. Ito was examining him when he died.”

Somewhere, a teakettle burbled and whistled.

“Excuse me, please.” Nakamura rose and disappeared behind a screen.

“Did he give you an opinion about the cause of death?” Lundquist called.

“Not me.” Nakamura came back carrying a round tray with a plain brown teapot and two cups without handles. Kneeling, he set the tray on the floor in front of Lundquist. “He told Daniel Petris it was his heart.”

“And you think?”

A long pause. Nakamura kept his eyes on his hands as he poured the tea.

“I don’t know what to think,” he said.

Lundquist inhaled the tea, wishing it were coffee. Give me strength, he thought. Now I have to drag it out of him.

“Thank you,” he said aloud. “Mr. Nakamura. you called the prosecutor’s office.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The pause was even longer this time. Nakamura stared into his teacup.

“I was afraid someone had murdered him.” His voice was almost inaudible.

Lundquist too spoke softly.

“What made you suspect that, Mr. Nakamura?”

Maybe it was the tea. Maybe it was the difference between “think” and “suspect.” For whatever reasons, the young man stopped hesitating.

“Dr. Ito didn’t see him in the orchestra. By the time I saw him, I’m sure it was his heart. But I heard a fine oboe player suddenly lose his lip and then saw him lose control over his fingers, and my assistant heard him say the word ‘numb.’ Then he could no longer speak at all. We had to help him to the car. He never cried or complained of pain. He didn’t hold his chest or stomach. In the car, he was scarcely breathing. By the time we arrived at the hospital, he couldn’t move at all.”

He paused. “I don’t know how to explain it. I am not a doctor. I can only tell you that the death of George Petris was nothing like the death of my friend’s mother. She died of a heart attack, and I remember it clearly. But everything that happened to George happened to my uncle, who ate a poisonous Japanese fish. It is called fugu in Japanese. I looked it up in my dictionary for you. You call it a puffer fish.”

Something vaguely familiar nudged the back of Lundquist’s mind. Where had he read about the puffer fish recently?

“What did Dr. Ito say–did you tell him about your uncle?”

“He said it was possible.”

“Even if Mr. Petris did die from eating this puffer fish, why would that make you suspect murder?”

“No place in Oliver serves Japanese food. His son says he ate steak last night, and only fresh vegetables. If he died from this poison–or even from one of the others like it–I don’t think the poison could have been in his food unless someone put it there.”

“Do you know if he had any enemies?”

No answer. Nakamura poured more tea.

“Mr. Nakamura, help me. I can talk to the people you mention, but I might as well go home if they won’t tell me what they know. You called us, remember?”

“I don’t know anything. But I think that very few people liked George Petris. He was not . . . a courteous man.”

“That’s all? People don’t kill people for their manners. We’d have daily slaughter on the road if they did.” He heard his own words. All too close to the truth.

“I don’t think anyone would want to kill a man for the things I have seen. But I wonder if a person who is so insensitive in small matters is not also unkind in larger things. I don’t know if anyone loved George. I will not be surprised to learn that someone hated him.”

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