School Is Murder 

Former educator Gerry Hernbrode earns a passing grade on her debut mystery novel

So how does a reviewer who was a public-school teacher review a book by a novelist who was a public-school principal, and whose work is touted by other public-school folks she knows? Carefully? With correct grammar? Certainly candidly.

Fortunately, this former principal, Gerry Hernbrode, has produced a mystery novel that ain't half bad.

Gerry Hernbrode brought life experience to her debut work. She was a nun in the pre-Vatican II era, a principal in an inner-city school, and a member of the Arizona State Board of Education. She's also been a rural emergency medical technician and a dispatcher for the volunteer fire department.

Hence, her central character knows how to pleat a nun's habit, oversee playground duty and cinch a hot horse.

Provincial Justice opens using the literary device that characterizes this novel: a dream sequence featuring the central character, Kate Mahoney, once a novice in the Congregation of the Celtic Cross, and her superior, the Mother Provincial. In this scene, Sister Katherine is kneeling on a freezing floor, observing "modesty of the eyes" (no eye contact) and begging forgiveness of her convent sisters for a minor infraction. But before she can be given penance, the Mother Provincial intervenes. This shocks the novice, as it flouts tradition.

The Mother Provincial tells Sister Katherine that she will be involved in a murder, and that she's to look after an Elijah Jeremiah. The scene establishes the dream device, introduces characters, sets the plot in action and suggests that the book might raise questions about blind adherence to tradition.

The predicted murder takes place almost immediately. Kate awakes, worrying about a first-grade teacher named Elijah, and goes to her inner-city elementary school in the middle of the night, arriving just in time to overhear—but not see—the bludgeoning death of the school superintendent who'd been harassing Elijah. That the murder takes place in Elijah's classroom makes him the prime suspect. The media erroneously reports that Principal Mahoney is a witness to the murder, making Kate a target for murder mop-up.

The novel is set in Tucson, and we can easily picture Kate's school with its trash-strewn neighborhood. The time period is slightly iffier, however. The book reads as contemporary, but characters' ages would suggest that it takes place in the late '70s, so we're not sure how to imagine it.

That's a minor first-novel weakness, however. Another weakness relates to style. While Hernbrode's writing is generally fluid and genre-appropriate, she periodically drops in awkward, inorganic similes (a dog's ears "rotating like TV antennas," for example).

Those aside, Hernbrode's main characters make for entertaining reading, as do her peeks at running a school and a convent.

Mahoney is feisty, smart and attractive. Sixteen years widowed, she's "married," she claims, to her school. Her actions and dream sequences show intelligence and independence that make her chafe in institutional bureaucracies, both religious and educational. She's even garnered some enemies in the law-enforcement bureaucracy: When her police-officer husband was killed on duty, and she felt his death was insufficiently investigated, she went public and got an officer demoted. Thus, her hackles are raised when her trusty school resource officer is transferred and replaced by gruff, cigar-chomping Theo, a detective also on the outs with the demoted officer.

Kate and Theo will end up cooperating, but the agent of interest in this book appears only in Kate's dreams. Delightfully lively yet dead Mother Provincial is not all-knowing, but she's privy to some information that could save Elijah and Kate.

The dream sequences paint an insider's picture of vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in nuns' daily lives. From the weight and fabric of the novices' habits (16 pounds of serge) to the strategies of training and testing (assigning high-spirited novices to duty stations farthest away to test their "religious decorum" when they were pressed for time), the order imposed obedience and conformity.

The plot of Provincial Justice develops quickly; the action doesn't flag for a moment. If Kate seems to take more risks than wisdom would dictate, at least they maintain suspense.

The final grade? The principal earns a B+ for the book and an A for potential. Provincial Justice is billed as a "Kate Mahoney Mystery"—suggesting there are more to come—and this teacher, for one, would welcome them.


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