Academic mysteries have vicious plots. All that jockeying for higher positions, more money or a better office brings out the worst in people, education notwithstanding. Edgar nominee David Bell (The Forgotten Girl) shows just how nasty the well-educated can be in his expertly plotted The Finalists, in which six students vie for a lucrative scholarship at the small, 152-year-old Hyde College in Kentucky. They'll take written exams followed by in-person interviews while locked in the campus's most remote building, the decaying Hyde House that's "older than Kentucky itself."
Everyone must hand over all electronic devices, including Troy Gaines, the college's vice-president for institutional development, and Nicholas Hyde, the founder's arrogant, remaining descendant, whose family fortune funds the college. The competition has barely begun when one student is found poisoned not long after partaking in the welcoming tea and biscuits; another death soon follows. The students turn on each other, but escape is futile: doors are locked tight and windows are shatterproof. The terrified students are being stalked inside the house, but their safety is also compromised outside where environmental protesters become more vocal and violent.
Bell pays homage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, skillfully transitioning into the locked-room mystery while simultaneously giving the novel his own spin. Bell allows each character to shine, even those dispatched early. The resentment is palpable for the students; for Troy, who fears for his job; and for the entitled Nicholas, who--as the family's representative--has complete control over the college's funds. The Finalists makes the grade with solid suspense. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer