What begins as a simple case of college students caught cheating on an exam soon emerges as a fast-paced murder mystery in Geoffrey M. Cooper’s The Fifth Student.
After lecturing at Maine State University, Brad Parker, a cancer biology research scientist and director of the nearby Maine Translational Research Institute (MTRI), is contacted by Penny Cameron, who attended his presentation. Brad is so impressed with the freshman’s inquisitiveness and understanding of high-level science that he offers her a position in his lab at MTRI.
Soon after, Penny is devastated when she’s named one of five students, all with perfect scores, accused of cheating on an exam. Despite evidence against her, Brad’s confidence in Penny’s intelligence and work ethic is unwavering, so he steps in to help prove her innocence.
Meanwhile, some graded exams, including Penny’s, are stolen, and the suspicious suicide of another accused student is followed by the murder of the professor who gave the test. Brad and his fiancée, Karen Richmond, an FBI agent, are convinced that these events are related and work with the campus police chief to unravel the truth.
The story takes unexpected turns, and Cooper’s characters are clearly differentiated through their distinct personalities and professions. Particularly interesting are Brad and Karen, who share an appreciation for good food, wine—and the truth. Descriptions of the scenic sea vistas and landmarks, while not flashy, provide a quiet sense of place, leaving no doubt that the author values Maine’s natural beauty. For example, Cooper writes: “It was low tide, and I scanned the sandbars, where during the summer a pair of bald eagles could frequently be spotted. Tonight, there were a dozen or so cormorants, holding their wings out to dry.”
Overall, Cooper’s deftly written story is engaging and will particularly appeal to mystery fans who look for well-developed characters amidst a story’s twists and turns.