By Natalie Sit
Ahh, university–a place to learn, discover and realize how evil your professor really is. Or so Eileen Coughlan would have you believe in her new novel Dying by Degrees.
Dying by Degrees takes place on the fictional campus of the University of Southwestern Alberta, located in the southwestern quadrant of Calgary. Yes, Calgary.
The redeeming features of Dying by Degrees are the references to our city like the Centre Street Bridge, fishing in the Elbow and Bow rivers and Mount Royal. However, Coughlan only highlights basic aspects of the city and never really gives the flavour of Calgary. Still, it’s a forgivable slip. How many authors choose to set any story in Cowtown?
Degrees’ characters resemble stick figures: easy to understand and duplicate. Often they are stereotypes, such as the bed-hopping ta, the tyrannical professor and the mystical Asian grandmother. Emily Goodstriker, the protagonist of Degrees, follows this pattern and, as a consequence, the reader can’t care about her.
An earnest psychology graduate student, Emily just wants to succeed so she joins a panic attack study run by Dr. Mullarcant, a brilliant yet overbearing researcher. From the first mention, it’s obvious he’s evil and it’s up to Emily to expose his deviousness. When her friend Beth plunges out a ten-storey window, Emily must find out who murdered Beth and what connection it has to the study.
The most interesting character is not Emily–which makes the caption on the book, "An Emily Goodstriker Mystery" wrong–but Ken Cox, a homeless drunk with a mysterious connection to the study and the university. Unlike the raging Mullarcant or boring Emily, Ken has genuine reasons to be angry. He’s bitter at how his life has turned out and wants to make sure Emily has a chance to succeed. When he warns Emily about being careful about Mullarcant and the project, the reader wonders how a homeless man would know so much.
The book would have more spunk if Coughlan wrote it from Ken’s point of view. The readers would understand life on the street and how hard it is to survive when you know there’s a better life waiting.
Eileen Coughlan will read from her book, Dying by Degrees, June 2 at the Signal Hill Center of Indigo Books.