Book Review and Author Interview of Mystery Novel ‘Death by Diploma’ by Kelley Kaye

Updated on February 8, 2019
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I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

Death by Diploma Book Cover


The Review


It’s been awhile since I’ve put down the YA and memoir books and read an adult mystery novel. So, when author Kelley Kay offered me the choice of reading her YA novel or her mystery, I went for the mystery. What appealed to me about the synopsis was the straightforward plot and familiar setting, and Kaye’s writing delivers on this, weaving a fun mystery through the otherwise mundane location of a public high school. Below is my review of Kaye’s first mystery novel, Death by Diploma, along with my interview with the author about Book 1 of Chalkboard Outlines series.


Emma Lovett has just begun a new job as an English teacher at a high school in Pinewood, Colorado, having moved from Holly Hills, SC after a bitter divorce. One morning, she goes to work early and stumbles upon the body of the kindly school janitor who has been bludgeoned to death with a paper weight. After witnessing the ineptness of the local police, she, along with new friend and fellow English teacher, Leslie Parker, decide to investigate and crack the case.

The two amateur sleuths comb through the various colorful personalities at the school, any of whom could be the killer, from the neurotic librarian to the skateboarding principal to fellow teacher and Emma’s possible love interest. Together, they unravel several mysteries surrounding the victim and suspects while having some fun along the way.

Death by Diploma Book Trailer


Despite being a murder mystery, this story isn’t your dark, HBO detective drama carried by a bitter, damaged protagonist. It’s breezy and playful and, not to be a prude, refreshingly lacking in the crudeness that encompasses many murder mysteries today. This allows the story to stay focused on the clue collecting and crime solving, all of which are wrapped up in school politics, haunted pasts, and shameful secrets.

Kaye also likes to inject humor in her dialogue, throwing around pop culture references and girl speak that resonates with female readers. It shows how murder and mayhem can occur in even the most normal situations. The two main characters tackle the mystery with the enthusiasm of bored suburbanites looking for excitement. The plot is clear and easy to follow, and despite its numerous characters, it’s easy to remember who is who from their distinctive quirks and personalities.


Anybody who has ever attended an American high school knows that it always stocked with strange characters. From staff to faculty to students, it’s easy to see how Kaye was able to come up with her cast of oddballs, any one of which could be the killer. The reader is introduced to most of them on Emma’s first day of work.

In between witnessing temper tantrums from the librarian, Edward, and dodging cringy comments the misogynist football coach, Charlie, she is introduced to Melvin, the school’s night janitor who makes a point of starting work early that first day in order to introduce himself and has an affinity for YA novels and sparkly bookmarks. She takes a liking to Melvin, being new herself and on her own for the first time.

This newfound independence inspires her to want to avenge this lonely man’s death. Having the headstrong, tenacious Leslie by her side fuels her courage. The two pull numerous B&E’s, discover clues that go unnoticed by the professional investigators, and pelt each other with relevant Shakespeare quotes whenever they get the chance.

In fact, several quotes are inserted between chapters of the novel, playing off the fact that two English teachers are on the case. Despite their penchant for lyrical memorization, however, the women are fumbling detectives, and it’s fun to watch them blunder and stumble through their investigation, all while juggling lesson plans, dates with possible suspects, and finding a good place to eat.


I recommend this book to anyone looking to start a new mystery series, especially female readers who like colorful, friendly heroes. In it, Kaye proves that not every murder mystery has to be dark and full of irredeemable characters in order to be entertaining. Book 2: Poison by Punctuation, is also available to buy. So, you’ll have another Emma Lovett adventure available as soon as you finish Death by Diploma.

The Interview

1. What made you decide to write a mystery novel?

I’ve always loved puzzles—not the jigsaw kind, but the word kind. I’ve loved mystery books since I can remember—starting with Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden and Encyclopedia Brown. I feel like books labeled as mysteries are the “pure” version of this—i.e. that’s even what they’re called, but really any questions a story makes you ask turn it into a mystery—which means most stories are mysteries, because they build suspense, which is simply the reader asking questions about what happens next.

2. How clear was the story in your head when you first thought of it? Did you know the ending as you were writing it, or did the plot develop as you went along?

This story started out as an entry for a TV show contest. Not the murder, just the characters—Emma and Leslie have been in my head for a long, long time! As far as the killer: this is what I do—I figure out who the killer is and why the killer kills, and then I just write the story as I go. It’s been going pretty slowly for book 3, which I’m working on now—but hopefully this will be the best one yet!

3. The story is full of colorful, offbeat characters. Who is your favorite and why?

I love Emma and Leslie because like I said—they’ve been with me a long time and they are kind of a combination of me and all my teacher friends. I also really like Edward—he tries so hard!

4. Did you know this would be the first book in a series?

Nope! I’m glad it is, though!

5. What kind of audience did you have in mind when you were writing this book?

Anyone who ever read or watched “Murder, She Wrote” could find something they liked in the Chalkboard Outlines series…

6. How did your teaching career play into the writing of this book?

The setting is a fictional town that’s a combination of both towns I taught in—Fruita, Colorado and South Lake Tahoe, California. The school is really close in description to the one I taught in in Colorado—which was my old high school, incidentally. People in a school situation (teachers, students, parents, administrators) are interesting! It’s a great setting for a murder!

7. What do you want readers to take away from this story?

I want them to be entertained and fall in love with these goofy characters and maybe learn something they didn’t know before they read it—I am a teacher, after all…

8. Clothing plays a big part of the character description in this story. Was this on purpose? How did you develop the individual styles that you detail in the narration?

Oh my goodness—no one has ever asked me this question before! It was totally not on purpose. I just tried to describe them as they appeared to me—Emma’s very floral and sweet, Leslie’s very stylish and chic, and Edward is…Edward. Charlie and all his neon golf clothes I don’t know if they even were that for the first book? But that’s what he wears because; well, because Charlie is a psychedelic character. Trippy and unknowable until book 3!

9. Your main character, Emma, is from the southeast. What shaped her background and accent?

She’s from Holly Hill, South Carolina, and that’s a small town I’ve never been to. I met a girl from there when I took a bunch of students to England for a theatre trip, and she just was so cute and sounded so cute; she was how Emma ended up sounding. I’ve never been down south really at all, just Emma, so I’m learning as I go (for example, I just learned the appropriate way to use ‘y’all’—it really depends on the number of people you’re talking to or referring to. I had no idea until this year, so Emma’s not totally correct on that score until Book 3! Also, I spelled some of her pronunciations phonetically, which I only did for book 1 and since then have tried to do it better with dialect and sentence structure and fun idioms.

10. The characters use a lot of pop culture references in their dialogue. Is this part of your own personal dialogue or made up for this story?

Honestly, I have no idea! They’ve been around for so long (that TV contest was in the late 1990’s), and I started teaching in the early 1990’s (1992), and then the setting had to get updated with the origination of the series (I signed the contract with Red Adept in late 2014 for an early 2016 release). I love books and movies and shows, so I refer to them. It must be me.

11. Do you have any fun facts about the novel that can't be found within its pages?

The original draft had a smattering of diary entries from the killer’s POV, which got cut. I tried that again for book 2—just as a writing exercise. It was totally cool to be able to get in the killer’s head like that. I’ve been too busy trying to market my existing books and write Book 3 and my new YA to do that—but it was helpful before.

Maybe I should be doing that!

12. Have you received any reader feedback that surprised you (in a good way)?

I love it when a reader says, “I can’t wait for the next one!”

The Chalkboard Outlines Book 2: Poison by Punctuation Trailer

Questions & Answers


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