Book Review: “He Needed Killing” by Bill Fitts

This book starts off with the death of a university administrator at a retirement party. A retirement party for a staff member who isn’t there. Not physically, anyway–James Crawford is the guest of honor, but he is monitoring the events remotely. As an IT manager, he is able to watch as his boss abruptly collapses just as he is about to give a speech.

The late boss, Sean Thomas, is not exactly missed by his former subordinates. The title of the book refers to him, and this sentiment is shared widely by the staff. Nevertheless, no matter how much he may have deserved it, there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding his death, and when his chief lackey also turns up dead, the provost recruits Crawford to investigate.

Crawford is a likable protagonist; a southern gentleman who takes his time about things, and muses his theories on the case to his dog, Tan, and cat, delightfully called “The Black.” Usually, he does this while preparing a meal, which is described in mouth-watering detail. Sometimes, he meets with his colleagues Stan and Bobby to discuss things, and more than once, the gruff but goodhearted police officer assists him in solving the case.

The book is slow-paced, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It captures the feel of a Southern college campus perfectly, right down to how life in the university town has to be carefully planned around whether the collegiate football team is playing at home that week.

While I enjoyed the denouement, I will say that I pretty much guessed how the mystery would be resolved long before it ended. But that’s okay. This book is more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fun one. More than a mystery, it’s really about getting to know the character of Crawford, and his reflections on life at the university.

The book even has a theme: centralization and power. This can be seen everywhere from the late Dr. Thomas’s management of the media center, which ends up being critical to the plot, to a minor detail like Crawford’s description of a popular football commentator:

“A couple of years ago, the radio station he’d been on had been bought up by one of those conglomerates that try to homogenize the stations so they all sound the same, from coast to coast. I guess the idea is eliminate any but essential staff, but that kills the local color as well.”

The university’s buying up of the surrounding properties to create a carefully-manicured off-campus “shopping experience” is another example of this. For me, the real fun of the book is hearing Crawford’s sometimes cynical, sometimes sentimental views on the place where he has spent his career.

Another striking thing about the book is the way it shows the university from the perspective of administrators. Students hardly register except as obstacles to be avoided on the drive in. Classes are scarcely mentioned; the world of college administration is a world unto itself.

While the mystery of Thomas’s death gets cleared up, the book ends on a cliffhanger introducing another mystery for Crawford to solve. I’m looking forward to the second book, and recommend this one to anybody who enjoys a nice, leisurely mystery.


    1. Isn’t it? Even better is the 2nd book in the series, “He Needed Killing Too.” 😀

  1. Sounds most interesting. I like that students barely feature, which is rare, I think, for a novel that has a university setting. He talks to his dog and cat, what’s not to like? Shall add it to the pile! 😊

  2. I’m not nearly as put off by predictability as most readers. Because, as you wrote in your review, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Nice review, as usual!

  3. As a Southerner, I enjoy the idea of things set in the South – but I find in practice, I like it when they’re done *extremely well* and almost never when halfheartedly. If the nuances of Southernness don’t rear their heads and cause the story to warp into something more than it would be otherwise, I feel let down. Would you say that’s how this book is? You do mention it being accurate (or accurate feeling, at least), but sometimes for me that’s not the complete requirements of a setting.

    1. That’s a tough one. I wouldn’t call it half-hearted, but I also wouldn’t say this is one where the Southernness takes over the story. It feels authentic to me, but I can’t claim to be an expert. I hope that’s helpful.

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