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by Lev Raphael
Perseverance Press, April 2019
256 pages
ISBN: 1564746097

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Although it's been about five years since Lev Raphael's gay academic English professor-cum-amateur detective Nick Hoffman and his professor spouse Stephen Borowski last appeared in print, STATE UNIVERSITY OF MURDER is set just six months or so after the traumatic events of the previous ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY LIE. In that, a book that began with a SWAT team assault on Nick and Stefan's house and ended with a psychotic gunman, Nick and Stefan had to deal with their response to their comfortable, sheltered life being violated by a lawless police force and a campaign of harassment. It is a trauma the effects of which are still live in both of them.

Now their circumstances have changed. They have moved house, unable to live in the earlier one though they had adored it. The English department of which they are members has been renamed and moved to less attractive quarters. Most unsettling of all, there is a new department chair, one not elected by the department but chosen by the president of the university. A French academic, Napoléon Padovani, is rather an odd choice to head a mid-western English department in an undistinguished state university. He is an international superstar of sorts, a man of great style and manner, but one who will be revealed to have aspects to his character his namesake shared. He is hardly in place before he has managed to make enemies of most of the department.

Not, of course, that that would be difficult. SUM's English & Creative Writing department is, simply, a nest of vipers. Each member has either a pet project or a grandiose ambition held close to the heart and for which any one of them might conceivably commit murder. In time murder does occur and Nick has trouble drawing up a list of suspects in any order of probability because every possible motive seems insufficient to warrant so extreme a remedy.

Nick and Stefan are themselves a stylish pair. Nick in particular is alert to every wardrobe clue provided by each character he comes across. I am myself unfamiliar with many of the logos and brands he recognizes, but I am sure they are vibrant with meaning. Stefan's pleasure in cooking occasionally pushes the book dangerously in the direction of the culinary cosy, but happily pulls back before providing an actual recipe.

But beneath the surface gloss, serious questions are quietly and insistently raised. The situation of non-tenure track adjuncts who are fully-qualified but inevitably aging out of any possibility of permanent employment is one. The wholesale decline of the humanities as a serious field of intellectual enquiry, under attack from administrators anxious to display successful figures of post-graduation employment, who feel that humanities on the whole should be jettisoned in favour of STEM is another. Then there is the problem of the student body itself, of classes divided between a group unwilling to read the assigned texts, let alone discuss them, and another group anxious to demonstrate the illegitimacy of any text due to the shortcomings of the author and thus also reluctant to crack to covers of a book.

The academic mystery is a long-standing and delightful sub-genre, and Raphael performs admirably as he produces an example that combines the traditional isolation of the closed community with the battering it takes from the world of which it both is and is not a part. Reading STATE UNIVERSITY OF MURDER may make one wonder just why all those parents paid so much money to assure their children a place in a university (perhaps they were attempting to avoid a SUM for their offspring, but if so, they were sadly mistaken). But any reader who has had the misfortune to attend a SUM or the good luck to have a life enriched by teachers like Nick and Stefan who love to teach should thoroughly enjoy this return to the groves of academe.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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