Grace A. Johnson
Review: Campus Menace by Preston Shires
Tasia Everett, a beautiful co-ed, goes missing, and it’s increasingly clear there’s a murderer loose on campus, and somebody needs to find the culprit. What better team of detectives than Tristan Telsmith, a religion-mocking professor, and Cambria Davenport, his Bible-thumping student. In this ‘who done it’, the mystery comes first, but it’s equally entertaining to listen to the religious-minded Cambria trying to match wits with the atheistic professor...or is it the other way round?
*Warnings* #1 This is a long review, so pull up a chair and grab a bowl of popcorn. You'll be here awhile. #2 When I read a review, I want substantial information. So I will not skimp on the details. Which will mean some spoilers, so watch out.
Foremost, one must applaud another’s good intentions, regardless of their outcome. Preston Shires set out to tackle a theological debate and an intriguing mystery in one book—and, to be honest, he accomplished both. He chose a college campus to prove the infallibility of Scripture and to write a disappearance mystery—a perfect setting, in my opinion.
I waded into Campus Menace on my tiptoes in my boots, uncertain what I would find. However, it became increasingly clear that Shires was onto something—literally. I eventually took my boot off and got sucked into Professor Telsmith and Cambia’s heated debates, even though it took some time for the mystery to appear.
The plot was...different, to say the least. With a narrator taking the helm in an almost autobiographical account of the mysterious proceedings, there is no definable plot-line. Though Campus Menace is a mystery, it’s not until you’re more than halfway through the book that the mystery becomes manifest, so to speak. The prologue keeps us hanging onto hope, while several chapters are spent on backstory.
If you’re not interested in theological debate and you don’t like backstory on all of the professors and students and the regular illicit affairs of college life, then rest assured that all of it was completely necessary. The debates between Telsmith and Cambria were exciting and kept me cheering Cambria on and awaiting her next witty remark. Before long, I began to wonder where their debates and Telsmith’s strange proceedings (such as multiple attempts at breaking and entering) where leading me...until the “murderer” struck and a game was afoot.
Even though there’s a lot of uncertainty in the beginning and the middle of Campus Menace, Shires was adeptly setting the stage for a befuddling mystery and a Poirot-like reveal at the end.
I’m torn between saying that the characters in Campus Menace are stereotyped and cliched and saying that they are unique and surprising. It is possible for them to be both?
To be honest, Tristan didn’t sound at all like a twenty-four-year-old. For the longest time, I had reckoned him to be between thirty and forty, since he sounded more like the author than a fresh-out-of-college-himself college adjunct. Once I discovered his age, I had to reconcile his first-person POV with the author’s own voice. It grew on him, even if he seemed stuck in limbo somewhere between American youth and Victorian-era Englishman.
As for Cambria, I quite liked her. She was smart and fiery, witty and smooth. Of course, in some ways it seemed that Shires had her (along with the other college students and faculty) stereotyped, but most of them panned out to be rather interesting—one Tasia Everett, the hapless victim, in general.
The other characters had flavor but lacked originality. Either that, or I’ve become jaded toward the culturally-progressive college setting.
Even if the secondary characters behaved exactly like college kids and wayward professors (which makes them all suspects, of course), our protagonist and his fundamentalist sidekick have unique views and personalities. Reading from Telsmith’s perspective turned everything on its head—from the mystery to the Bible to Cambria herself. Shires did a fantastic job portraying him and his agnostic views, but he still kept his story straight by help of Cambria, who worked to prove the truth and infallibility of Scripture to our dear Prof. Telsmith.
Goodness knows that, apart from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I haven’t read a proper mystery in at least six years. Of course, armed with mon ami Poirot, I was able to appreciate the story leading up to the mystery, the careful consideration involved (on the author’s part, not the perpetrator—had they considered their actions more carefully, they wouldn’t have been caught), and the grand finale.
It took a moment to get there, for the reader to be “Oh, here’s where the fun begins,” but Shires did an impeccable job of crafting his mystery—sneaking clues through heated arguments with Cambria and slipping red herrings past the meetings with the Miscreants. Before long, he had a firm foundation for the mystery to unfold. And unfold it did. It was a quick ordeal, but I think the pacing was beneficial. Should the reader be paying more attention to the mysterious happenings on campus than to the theological debates, then they might decipher just who the culprit was before our two amateur detectives.
And I have mentioned that Cambria Poirot and Tristan Hastings’s reveal at the end would have made Dame Agatha Christie proud.
On a theological note, Shires knows his business. After reading the author’s note at the end, I can see why. He, once in a place quite similar to Tristan Telsmith’s, was able to consummately and accurately present agnostic arguments and “facts” to refute the truth of the Holy Scriptures, such as any atheist would. But, now a Christian, he utilized Cambria’s never-back-down, Rocky Balboa attitude to combat his own arguments. I firmly believe in the infallibility of God’s Word, and, as an author, I know how fun and satisfying it is to write a book reflecting my personal views—sometimes in reply to another’s own opinions. Of course, not always does the mix of opinions and plot, beliefs and fiction turn out properly, but Shires chose a perfect way to do so. The last scene with Cambria and Tristan sums all of that up.
I do think Shires presented today’s culture a little...forcefully. Everyone being immoral and wayward—and blatantly so—hindered the character’s authenticity and the actual story. A representation of college life and culture could’ve been achieved much smoother and subtler.
So, I’ve mentioned that Campus Menace is told from the first-person, autobiographical-style POV of Tristan Telsmith, college adjunct, atheist, amateur detective, and John Wayne, James Bond, and Midsomer Mysteries fan. Telsmith eventually admits that he has written down his firsthand account of the happenings on campus, and that his “detective’s diary,” so to speak, is what we read.
Because of this, the tense jumps around. Sometimes it’s past, sometimes it’s present. Until you come to the realization that Campus Menace is not written in the POV of Prof. Telsmith—it’s written by him—that’s kind of jarring. However, I appreciate Shires using only one POV and using him as the first-person narrator. Head-hopping or multiple POVs would have only taken away from the story.
That being said, Telsmith has a strange voice. It certainly doesn’t sound anything like that of a guy born in 1994—not the average one, at least. It’s quite obvious that Telsmith’s voice is the author’s rather than his own, so he’s very loquacious and difficult to take seriously at times. He’s not the most convincing character, and perhaps that is a good thing, because unconvincing characters make you think—about them, about their views and personality, about the story.
The narrator aside, Shires’ prose is mature and philosophical, full of dry humor and wit. It doesn’t fit his character, but it fits him and, in the end, it fit the story.
There were only a few typos and grammatical errors—two misspelled words that were forgivable (I deduced the cause of their unfortunate existence by examining the layout of my computer keys) and a few misplaced commas and semi-colons. That’s usually what you get when you go for the deep and wordy writing style. Otherwise, the manuscript itself was pretty clean, which is surprising, seeing as how it was edited by Shires’ thirteen-year-old granddaughter.
Long Story Short…
I can’t say Campus Menace was perfect, but it did surprise me. It took me a while to read, but I kept coming back to Cambria and Telsmith’s arguments and, once the mystery began to unfold, I couldn’t stop reading! There are a few mistakes, mostly concerning the authenticity of the characters and the depictions of certain elements, and at times there was a lull, but Shires pulled it off! I would recommend Campus Menace for adults, although it might fit in the New Adult genre, being set at college and all. From the theological and historical debates to the mystery, Shires kept to his good intentions by giving us an intriguing mystery and proving the infallibility of Scripture.
After Campus Menace, I’d like to see Tristan and Cambria solve another mystery—maybe something might come out of their strange partnership after all!
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book and payment for an honest review. All the opinions expressed above are my own.
Where to Find the Book
Campus Menace can be purchased on Amazon in both Kindle eBook and paperback format. It's also available on Kindle Unlimited!
About the Author
Preston Shires is a history instructor and lives on a farm with his wife, Sylvie, in southeast Nebraska. He spends his days reading, writing, teaching, or farming. Preston's book, Knight Time for Paris, was runner up at the Athanatos Writing Contest and was published by Athanatos Publishing. In Knight Time for Paris, France's medieval crusader king, Louis IX, comes to life in the 21st century with hopes of redeeming his kingdom. This work reflects Preston's interest in medieval and contemporary European history. However, he is also at home with American history and penned a novel of historical fiction set in the frontier river town of Brownville, Nebraska. The year is 1857 and Adeline Furlough, the main character, is going to make a name for herself in a most unusual way. Life in a Casket has been short-listed in the Laramie Award competition. Follow this story and others at prestonshires.com.