When two presidents of elite women's colleges collaborate on a writing project, the expected result might be a dreary treatise on educational reform, the future of single sex education, or the care and feeding of wealthy alumnae. Happily, that's not the case in Overnight Float, a thoughtful, well-written and nicely paced mystery penned by Jill Ker Conway and Elizabeth T. Kennan, whose previous careers as the respective leaders of Smith and Mount Holyoke give them first-hand knowledge of the financial, social, and scholarly aspects of university administration. Their heroine, Rosemary Stubbs, is a former high-flying businesswoman whose husband's untimely death in a sailing accident led her to rethink her priorities and eventually to enter divinity school. After completing her studies, she accepts a post as chaplain at Sanderson College, set in the beautifully evoked Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts.
Rosemary has barely unpacked when the body of Blanche Werner, the Sanderson treasurer, is found floating in the college swimming pool. Blanche's death brings into sharp focus the financial difficulties that have forced the administration to cut department budgets and provoked faculty infighting. Because of Rosemary's business background, she is asked to take a second look at the Sanderson books and balance sheet. Before she can discover why money keeps disappearing from the college's account (particularly the overnight float of the title, earnings that should have made the budget cuts unnecessary), another murder occurs, and Rosemary's own life is threatened. But before the denouement, the real pleasures of this fine debut novel unfold in Rosemary's growing friendships within the college community, her love of the New England landscape, and her reflections on the spiritual concerns of her charges. There are harbingers of romantic relationships to be explored in future books, with an opera-loving police chief and a seductive classics professor already vying for the attractive young widow's attention. Overnight Float is a worthy addition to a subgenre of academic mysteries. If you like Amanda Cross's Kate Fansler, you'll love Clare Munnings's Rosemary Stubbs. --Jane Adams