“He Needed Killing: Book 1 in the Needed Killing Series”
Author: Bill Fitts
Publisher: Borgo Publishing Editions; Electronic Publisher: Smashwords
Price: $10.95 (Paper)
In September of 2011 Bill Fitts retired from his job as a computer scientist at the University of Alabama and almost at once began his “He Needed Killing” mystery series.
In this first novel, the protagonist James F. Crawford takes early retirement from his job at the Computer Center, Department of Technology, at a university very like the U of A, in a town called Shelbyville (all ironies intended, I am sure), a town which looks altogether a lot like Tuscaloosa.
Crawford detests his boss, the arrogant and incompetent Sean Thomas, so much that he refuses to attend his own retirement party. The ceremony goes on anyway, and Sean, it seems, eats some potato salad—to which he knew he was allergic—and then dies. Why would he do that?
Even though everyone hates Sean, even his fiancé, Veronica, Jim Crawford would have been the prime suspect had he been there, but he wasn’t.
Very soon Albert Worthy, Sean’s assistant, is found dead, hanging in his downtown loft apartment, apparently a victim of autoeroticism gone as bad as Sean’s potato salad.
The university provost, Rufus George, a good man, believes the deaths were murders and, at lunch at the University Club, asks Jim to investigate, Jim having had some little training in the Navy Reserve for shore patrol. Jim is struck by the difference between the sage provost and the careerist Sean: “One cared about how to make the world better while the other cared about making himself look better.”
Crawford knows he is an amateur, to say the least, an unlikely sleuth, but goes forward anyway, interviewing witnesses, looking for evidence, but mostly thinking it through in the quiet of his home. “Needed Killing” is a kind of cozy, in the same vein as Anne George’s Southern Sisters series, with a relatively leisurely pace. Crawford himself is in even less danger than George’s sisters, who occasionally got attacked or kidnapped. There are corpses but no blood or violence.
The plotting is not slick but is workmanlike, and Fitts establishes Crawford as a likeable fellow. He enjoys cooking and has a cat and a dog. Fitts thinks that the cat and dog and Crawford’s meals are more interesting to the reader than they actually are, a small complaint. More fun, and somewhat provocative, is his running commentary on life on campus and in “Shelbyville,” when the novel turns to satire.
The staff parking permits, which over the years cost more and more, are “like hunting licenses.” No guarantee included. Driving on campus while searching for a space involves avoiding running over students, who stroll in the road, phoning and texting.
When the provost, “an accomplished politician,” speaks at the memorial service “he couche[s] his remarks in glowing, respectful terms that were, when you got right down to it, vague and meaningless.”
The town homicide detective, Captain Jim Ward, is insulted that a person of influence has put Crawford, an amateur, on the case. But Crawford explains: this time the use of influence is different. The university administrator wants “to uncover a crime, not cover it up.” Captain Ward replies “I guess there has to be a first time for everything.”
Crawford also has some cynical remarks to make about “The Strip”: “The University had led the effort to clean up areas just off campus.…to spruce up the appearance of the major access roads people (read alumni and donors, correction, donors current and prospective) took when they came to the campus.” Disreputable-looking bars were “booted out” and replaced with “upscale shopping experiences.”
Although the novel is laced with these commentaries, it is finally a murder mystery.
Using his computer and editing skills, Crawford reconstructs the retirement party on screen in the University’s brand-new multimedia room, using footage from a variety of closed-circuit TV cameras, finally creating a 360-degree record of the event, from the point of view of the potato salad. The mystery is solved.
Crawford has a lady friend, Bobby, an editor at the university press. Bobby loathes her boss, the press director, and in Fitts’ second novel, “He Needed Killing, Too,” Bobby will be the prime suspect when the press director is killed.
One wonders how many people on this fictional campus Fitts thinks need killing!
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”