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Perhaps all you need to know about The Cereal Murders comes at the start, when the heroine asks her adopted son to tell her about a classmate who's been recently murdered. He was unpopular, her son explains, and as evidence cites his behavior in their prep school English class: after viewing the Ingmar Bergman movies the teacher made them watch, the boy would insist on "talking about the [movie's] internal structure": "That kind of smart attitude can lose you some friends."

Yeah, it's bad enough that he was watching old movies in the first place, but TALKING about them. What's with THAT?

This is what I get for reading a book entitled The Cereal Murders. The plot proper begins when Colorado caterer Goldy Bear (oh, Lordy) discovers in the snow the dead body of the aforementioned prep school student; he's been strangled with one of Goldy's spare extension cords. She phones 911 and requests that her policeman boyfriend be sent to oversee the case. Later that night, she removes from the scene what seems to be the victim's personal property but doesn't bother reporting it to the police until later on. For some reason, despite owning the murder weapon, tampering with and withholding evidence, requesting preferential police treatment, discovering the body, and being the only human alive at the immediate scene, she's not considered the #1 suspect, an indication of how far you're going to be required to suspend your disbelief here.

Ridiculous name aside, Goldy was the biggest turnoff for me in this book, a tiringly self-centered and narrow-minded woman. She expresses smug disapproval of those who are (hold on while I get my list) too smart, too thin, too heavy, too rich, too short, have frosted hair, are experiencing mental distress following a divorce, or are Eastern European (???). She attends church mainly to exchange gossip and becomes irritated when the priest expresses disapproval at doing so during the service. She interrupts mourning of the dead teenager with recollections of her own past domestic abuse, which does injustice to both crimes, and she snickers at the victim for being a "nerd" while his body isn't even stiff.

For its theme, the book highlights the absurdities of trying to secure a spot at a competitive college, but Davidson handles it with an attitude at once both anti-intellectual and weirdly elitist. On one hand, a good portion of the book is a jeremiad against the supposed uselessness of formal higher education, with its heroine bemoaning how words like "totalitarianism" aren't useful in everyday conversation and how REAL jobs like catering don't require a diploma. On the other hand, Goldy conspicuously notes how she attended an Ivy League school and belabors how her sheriff sweetie is a Harvard alumnus, and she seems to spend a lot of time studying who owns a Lexus and who's stuck driving a Honda in the church parking lot; personal worth still correlates strongly with income in Goldy's eyes, and she wants you to know she's still Better Than You by the same educational metric she ostensibly rejects. I sympathize with her point that colleges often don't quite deliver on their expense and that the best learning environments, be it from an "objective" standpoint or a person-to-person fit, sometimes aren't the most expensive. Degrees and training, though, do most often make a difference, and not everyone aspires to a profession that doesn't require a bachelor's.

(Also: call me drearily pragmatic, but I think it might have been a mistake to resolve the young aspiring scientist's storyline by sending her to a liberal-arts school for an astrophysics degree. I'm not sure either that genius journalism students use "guess what?" much in their blistering, Pulitzer-worthy exposes.)

The book's gimmick is that it intersperses the proceedings with Goldy's catering recipes, which as genre gimmicks go is refreshingly engaging and interactive; I tried the Cereal Killer Cookies, and they weren't bad. I didn't mind the heroine's supporting cast (smart, amiable young son; weary, well-adjusted adopted teenager; nice-guy boyfriend), and the rich-but-isolated small Colorado mountain-town setting is distinctively appealing. There's no real mystery here, though - there're no true clues to the perp's identity, and the eleventh-hour villain could've been most anyone in the cast. Overall, I don't think I'll be returning for a second helping of this series. There's a kernel of an idea here about how kids are forced to spend too much time pretending to be someone they're not to impress recruiters and thus are left with no time to develop their own personality at a critical age, but the protagonist - and the author - are just too petty and narrow-minded for any meaningful exploration of it.

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