In 1962, Dot Morgan was told the best thing she could do besides being a nurse or teacher was to learn to type. While attending secretarial school, she decides to rub elbows with an elite ladies’ club to help her father with a struggling campaign for city council. Instead of getting the help she sought, Dot is thrown into a world of adultery, deceit, and murder when one of the town’s sons is found dead.
Time to put that 45 on the record player and bring out your best dance moves in The Twist and Shout Murder.
When I talk to book clubs, I usually read an excerpt from the beginning of the book, but I just had to give you a little time with Miss Robinson, the world’s meanest secretarial school teacher.
After all that had happened, I had to sneak into the back of the class. Miss Robinson was out on another smoke break, and I was lucky I didn’t run into her in the hallway. She barely noticed me when she returned to find the students hammering away at a shorthand transcription assignment. Today’s lesson was easy, but finishing the endless pages of shorthand transcription she had assigned outside of class was another matter. The next morning with an aching arm and a lack of sleep, I slapped the first hundred pages of the textbook gloriously recorded in neat little strokes on Miss Robinson’s desk. She was tearing through another student’s work, merrily marking it with a cruel red pen. When she finally looked up, her eyes were cold.
“Thank you for finally getting your work to me.” She leaned back in her chair, and taking off her glasses, rubbed the back of her neck. “However, it is unfortunate these pages cannot outweigh your latest blunder.”
“I beg your pardon?” How could I have made a blunder so soon after the last one?
“They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You are a prime example of this. It has come to my attention you’ve been calling yourself a secretary in our community. A noble thing for sure, but a position you are not yet trained for.”
Did Miss Robinson have me under surveillance? Everything I did was making its way back to her. Had it been a coincidence she was walking down the street when we happened upon each other in front of Mr. Armand’s or had she been following me? “Are you…referring to…”
“Linda Manning. How dare you offer her secretarial services you are highly unqualified to perform.” Miss Robinson made me feel like a doctor operating on someone’s appendix while still reading the instructions out of the medical book. Don’t worry about a thing—it says here it’s just a simple cut.
“I only offered to help her with probate for her husband. I made an A in my legal assistance class. I hardly think helping another person with business affairs is out of line. Besides, it gives me experience outside of the school.”
Miss Robinson shook her head in disgust. “Do you realize the problems an untrained individual can cause in proceedings of the court? Are you even thinking of the legal fees you could end up causing this woman?”
Legal fees? I hadn’t thought of it that way. Feeling a little less sure of myself, I said, “Linda…Mrs. Manning needed help, and I offered. Besides that, you were the person who trained me. Don’t you have any confidence in your curriculum? Yes, some of the items were confusing, but I think I did fine with it. What I did wasn’t wrong.”
“The simple financial affairs you encountered in the legal assistance class are not the same as the family of Morton…Anson Manning.”
They say sometimes you can tell more about a person in their blunders than their words. Miss Robinson had just made a significant one. Morton Manning had put her up to this, of that I was sure. Just like Bertram and putting the words into the mechanical wooden mouth of Mr. Sammy, Morton was putting words in Miss Robinson’s mouth.
My frustration rose as I felt Miss Robinson’s scolding of me for using something she, herself, taught me was getting ridiculous. If I wanted to help Linda Manning, then I would. “Honestly, it’s just filing a few forms.”
“This is a glaring misuse of your education and why I am demoting you back to first semester. It is obvious you haven’t learned anything.” She picked up my pages of shorthand transcription and threw them in the trashcan by her desk.
I had worked hard to get to the final semester of secretarial school. First semester? Could she even do that? The secretarial school course lasted two years, with each class taking half a year. Miss Robinson’s decision left me with a choice. I could try to get a job without my certificate of completion, or I could delay my entrance into the workforce for another two years. Either way, it wasn’t right. “I don’t think that’s fair and I’m not even sure you can get away with it. You don’t own this school. You only teach here.”
Other students began to filter in behind me laughing and talking, unaware of the showdown going on between us. “You are correct. The Hudson family owns this school, and Mr. Hudson trusts me completely. That includes a student’s placement in our coursework. It is my opinion this course of action is indeed fair and ultimately for your own good.” She wagged an unvarnished fingernail at me and grinned. “The hardest lessons are the ones from which you gain the most knowledge.”
“You want to know what I think?” My voice was becoming a little louder than I would have liked it, but it was either that or let the tears that were threatening take over. “I think Morton Manning put you up to this.”
Miss Robinson bristled at the mention of his name. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you can be assured your amateur attempts at secretarial assistance have not gone unnoticed in our community. Seeing as you are starting all over again, you can go home today.”
I was still seething that night when Ellie came home from work. I was ready to unload on her, but she seemed to be in a sour mood already.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing.” She threw down her purse and a bag of hand sewing she brought home every night.
“Doesn’t look like nothing to me.”
“It’s just…this thing with Maureen Johnson getting to have any man she wants has been on my mind, and it’s starting to tear me up.”
Maureen’s ability to seduce a man and Ellie’s inability to do the same was killing her. “I should probably admit this to you now. I know you told me not to, but I told Barb about Maureen and Morton.”
“Yes, and here’s the kicker. She didn’t care. She went right on with her business as if I had just told her slip was showing.”
“That means she already knew. The woman who looks like she has everything has a man who chooses to sleep with someone else. I guess that’s life on a cracker.”
“So that is what has you upset?”
“No, and yes.” To my surprise, she began to cry.
I rushed over and put an arm around her, and we both sat on the bed. “Ellie, what is it?”
“Al still hasn’t answered my…proposition,” she said through tears.
“He said he wanted time to think about it.”
“How much time does the man need?” She threw her hands up in the air and wailed. “I’m not getting any younger, you know.”
“Do you think you should call him again?”
Ellie gave me a sideways look. “Now, that’s just desperate.” She took on a small voice. “It’s me, Ellie. Have you decided to sleep with me, you big electric man?”
I laughed at her voice, and she smiled. “If it weren’t so sad it would be funny. I don’t know what to do.”
“Maybe he’s frightened? I’ve never seen Al with anyone but you. Maybe he’s …inexperienced.”
“Good grief, the man is in his thirties. He isn’t inexperienced.”
“And you don’t know that for sure.”
“I guess all I can do is try to be patient.”
“You want me to blow a fuse? I bet we could get him over here.”
“Maureen Johnson has had four husbands, and I can’t land Al the electrician. What’s wrong with me?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” I reassured her.
She began to cry again, and my hugs and kind words were not even making a dent in it.
“I think…” She stopped for a moment.
“I think I need to…get more serious with him.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what she was talking about, but I had an idea. “You’ve said that.”
She rose and went to her room. When she came out, she was holding a piece of black silk lingerie. “Sex. Tonight’s the night.”
“Sex? You mean you’re going to go to his house tonight, without an invitation? He opens the door, and there you stand?” I began to worry about how much a rejection could hurt my cousin. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Sure. I’ll put on the nighty and then wear my raincoat over it. Just like Marilyn Monroe.” She ran back into her room, and I could hear her changing. “When I come back,” she said through the door. “I’ll be a changed woman.”
“I thought you were waiting to get married.”
“Well, that’s not happening anytime soon. If Maureen Johnson can have that many husbands, then so can I.”
“Do you want four husbands?”
She came back out, securing the belt of her raincoat. “Of course not. I’d be happy with one. It’s just a comparison, that’s all.”
“I don’t know Ellie. What if he says no?”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“If he doesn’t want to sleep with me, I’ve been barking up the wrong tree, and maybe I should introduce him to some of my male friends.”
We both laughed at that, and it felt good after what Miss Robinson had just put me through.