How marketable is a bachelor’s degree in philosophy? Billy Webb thought it was useless until he gets his first job out of college at a company that produces a dictionary. In The Broken Teaglass, Emily Arsenault invites you into the cubicles of workers who study new and old expressions in the language, in preparation for an updated version of the Samuelson Dictionary. As boring as that sounds, Arsenault turns her story into a slow-moving mystery.
Happy to do anything to kill the monotony of defining and finding words, Billy finds himself investigating a possible murder, with his sleuth fellow-worker, Mona Minot. In checking the archives, they find citations using “The Broken Teaglass,” as the reference for words defined in the early 1950s . The citations are bizarre, and they discover that no book with that title exists.
Arsenault cleverly draws out the drama by having Billy and Mona develop a relationship as they search for the citations, but the slow action and the dry dialogue make it hard to keep interested in their love story. Eventually, Billy’s personal background intersects with the drama, but seems more like an add on – better to have stayed with the murder confession script.
As Arsenault strings the clues together haphazardly and draws in other characters, the story takes on a framework – if you can stay with it that long. If you like solving those large 1000 piece scenic puzzles, you may enjoy collecting the bits of information as you read. The broken teaglass is a clue to solving a murder, as Billy and Mona, and later Philip, the retired lexicographer, search the files to collect pieces of the confession.
Along the way, Arsenault offers her own philosophies and opinions on writers, readers, dictionaries, words, e.g.,
“ Published writers are self-conscious as hell. They don’t stretch the language in a practical way. Only to be arty and impressive…”
Arsenault does her best to stretch the language, and succeeds with her witty comments. The ending brings a surprise, as in all good mysteries, but it is so long in coming, it seems anticlimactic.
The title is inviting, but you will need to be willing to temper your mystery solving with patience for a long, prosaic telling and maybe read with a pencil in hand to jot down all the new words.