𝘿𝙚𝙥𝙖𝙧𝙩𝙢𝙚𝙣𝙩 𝙤𝙛 𝘿𝙚𝙖𝙩𝙝: Research Can Be Murder

In Department of Death, the latest Nick Hoffman mystery set in the wilds of academia, Nick has become chair of his university’s English Department–but nobody reading the series could have predicted that would ever happen. It’s definitely not something that Nick ever wanted.

I introduced him to mystery readers in Let’s Get Criminal as an English professor who wasn’t respected in his Midwestern department for way too many reasons. To start with, he was a “spousal hire,” which meant he got his position only because the university wanted to hire his partner.

Spousal hires at a university can arouse a lot of animosity in their new colleagues even when they’re well-qualified, because they’re basically just part of a package deal. In most cases, they would never have been hired on their own at that point in time. Other professors will feel they’re intruders, unworthy of joining the rarefied club whose membership they guard so zealously. And it doesn’t take much to anger highly combustible professors anyway in an environment where grudges flourish like feral hogs, walking catfish, Burmese pythons, and other invasive species that are ruining the Everglades.

Nick was also looked down upon because he enjoyed teaching the most basic course the department offered: composition. His peers would do anything to avoid being stuck with it. That kind of course put him at the level of graduate assistants and adjuncts, and liking the hard work involved in helping students strengthen their writing skills created suspicion and even contempt: who was he trying to kid?

And then there was his scholarship: Nick is a bibliographer. A bibliographer of Edith Wharton. That means that he’s not only read every single book, story, review, and essay that Wharton wrote, he’s read everything that’s ever been written about her. In every language. The project took him four solid years. He’s annotated each item and created multiple indexes for the bibliography which is a splendid guide for anyone doing research about the American author who was the first women to win a Pulitzer for Literature.

That might sound significant, but to his new colleagues, it’s grunt work, uninspiring–and worse than that, his book is useful. Unlike their own books which are written in abstruse critical jargon that only appeals to minuscule audiences.

I chose this focus for Nick’s scholarship because my college writing mentor was a Wharton bibliographer and I wanted to honor her years of research. And it appalled me how that book did not get her promoted to full professor when she should have been.

Nick has had a different path, pockmarked by murders of course. He did get promoted to full professor; a visiting authors’ fellowship was established in his name by a grateful student who struck it rich; and through a bizarre twist of fate in the 10th book of the series, he’s heading up a department filled with people who loathe him more now than ever.

He regrets having agreed to become chair before the first week in his new position is over. What happens? Nick is unexpectedly privy to a bribery scandal that threatens to blacken the name of the university. Nick himself is the object of intense administrative harassment and spying. And of course, he becomes involved in yet another murder.

Can his research skills and his love of crime fiction help him out of this tangle of problems? They always have, no matter how little respect they’ve earned him from his colleagues.

In classic mystery form, the murderer and motive are revealed at the very end of the book amid a scene of crazy academic chaos unlike anything Nick has ever witnessed or dealt with before.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer at the Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books in a wide range of genres.  He coaches and mentors writers at writewithoutborders.com.

 

An Academic Nest of Vipers

When I do readings from my mystery series, people ask, “Are universities as loony and vicious as all that?”

Yes.  Absolutely.  And how do I know? Because I didn’t just escape that world with lots of notes, I have friends who are still there, reporting fiction-worthy incidents on a regular basis.

One chair I heard of had a bizarre approach to resolving a conflict between two professors: He suggested that the two of them get drunk together at the annual Christmas party and all their problems would be resolved—they would be friends forever! That’s on the ludicrous side, to be charitable.

Another held academic cage matches. Adjuncts competing for the possible tenure-track positions that might, just might be opening up each year had to present their work-in-progress every week (!) and put it in the best possible light and hope they’d win the prize. The pressure was intense, the competition ugly and brutal. Then there’s a department chair I heard of who revealed personal psychological information about a professor during a department meeting while supposedly “worrying” about her mental state, totally violating that professor’s privacy.

There’s another who knew a faculty member was going to complain about his disregard for university regulations and not only tried to stop her from a formal complaint at a university committee, but sat behind her at the meeting along with one of his henchmen and muttered derisively when she read her statement, trying to intimidate her.

A religious studies chairman I was told about argued with a rabbi teaching as an adjunct in his department–a rabbi!–that Judaism was absolutely not a culture, but could only be spoken about and taught as a religion. The rabbi was fired for disagreeing.

When my office mate at Michigan State University reported that a graduate student in the department who was an ex- burst into her apartment, roughed up her current boyfriend and threatened her, the department chair did absolutely nothing.

And reports from another department I know of describe the current atmosphere as “Stalinist.” While there’s significant disapproval of actions the chair is taking to limit academic freedom and free speech, faculty members who disagree are afraid to speak up for fear of harassment and punishment. The faculty listserv is now off limits to discussion of anything remotely “controversial.”

My Nick Hoffman series is satirical, extrapolating from real situations and making them more ridiculous and threatening–but the emotional core is ultimately true.  The psychological toll this kind of rampant and widespread abuse of various kinds can take is also true.

There’s no evidence that George Bernard Shaw actually said “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,” but whoever is the source, that quote has guided me through my series and will continue to do so.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books from mystery to memoir.  His latest book Department of Death just earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  It will be available only until the end of 2021.

Amazing Anniversary of My Breakthrough Debut Collection

I published Dancing on Tisha B’Av almost thirty years ago and the book capped ten years of publishing groundbreaking stories about gay Jews and children of Holocaust survivors. More than that, it fulfilled my childhood dream of having people read a book of mine because I was so crazy about stories even then. I had longed to see a book of mine on library shelves and in bookstores.

I’ve now published twenty-five more books in genres from mystery to memoir and I’ve loved writing each one, and have never known where any book would take me.


Dancing had a unique trajectory. It won a Lambda Literary Award and launched me as a public voice of gay Jews, as someone building bridges between Jews and non-Jews, gays and straights. It started me on what has seemed like a never-ending series of book tours that has included hundreds of invited talks and readings across the U.S. and Canada and in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Israel.

It opened me up to the magic of reaching an audience, however large or small, and how exciting that could be. Thanks to having been a classroom teacher and taken theater classes in college, I knew something about being in front of an audience but needed more experience which I got, in spades. I also received “director’s notes” from my husband (then partner), who came on many of the tours, and I trained myself to become the best possible performer of my own work that I could possibly be, rehearsing before each event.

My career took many turns after that: I reviewed for fifteen years for a handful of newspapers and radio stations, even producing my own local radio show where I interviewed authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Salman Rushdie. I launched a mystery series featuring a gay sleuth and his partner. I published in genres I never expected to, like horror, The Vampyre of Gotham, and historical fiction, Rosedale in Love. More recently I returned to university teaching for six years at Michigan State University, which inspired two new crime novels set in academia.


I always counted myself fortunate in having an amazing writing and teaching mentor in college, and when I asked her how I could thank her, all she told me was to “Pass it on.” And that’s exactly what I’ve aimed for in both my writing and teaching over the years, and it’s what I continue to strive for in my online mentoring today. Her guidance is always with me. Truly, that Lutheran professor helped make me the Jewish writer I am today.


Lev Raphael’s author website is levraphael.com, and his online mentoring website is writewithoutborders.com.  His collection Secret Anniversaries of the Heart gathers 25 years of his fiction.

“Am I In Your Book?”

I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off.  Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.

On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling.  Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books.  So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance.  Sort of.  Or a contribution?

The thing is, nobody gets shoved into my books from real life.  Ever.  And each one of my characters is a composite of fact and fiction.  Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.

Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series.  She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate.  By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered.  How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference.  But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.”  I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.

Curiously, I did once run into a woman who looked and dressed just as I envisioned Juno did, when I was staying in a German hotel on a book tour–and she was Italian.

The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl.  So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.

Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to.  For me, people are just models and sometimes inspiration.  Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

Why Are So Many Reviewers Careless and Clueless?

I confess. Even though I’m an author, I did go over to The Dark Side years ago and I’ve done hundreds of book reviews for newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and on line.

I’ve always tried to be fair and to avoid spoilers; I’ve always been scrupulous about getting my facts straight. But over the years I’ve had to put up with many reviewers who’ve been careless and just plain wrong when reviewing a book of mine, and it’s irritating. I’m not talking about reviewers who don’t like a book for one reason or another, but reviewers who just plain goof. Here are just a few examples.

A Booklist reviewer said that my novel The German Money dealt with a theme it didn’t remotely touch. I was lucky enough to know one of the Booklist editors and complained. He agreed, he apologized, and he changed the review on line, but the print review couldn’t be altered. I’m convinced the reviewer only skimmed my book and was thinking of another title of mine.

Then there was the Publishers Weekly reviewer who never even bothered to count how many mysteries there were in my Nick Hoffman series and published a review in which the number was off. That’s just plain sloppy and it’s happened more than once with other reviewers. Of course I wondered how carefully those reviewers even read the books if they got something so basic wrong.

A Michigan newspaper reviewer once criticized my narrator for misusing the word “access” when he supposedly should have used “excess.” Well, my narrator Nick Hoffman was an English professor and knew what he was saying.  He used “access” correctly in the sentence the reviewer didn’t understand; he was talking about an outburst of feeling. A quick check of a dictionary–physical or on line–would have helped the reviewer avoid making a mistake in print. It would also have expanded her vocabulary.

The latest example of a clodpole mishandling one of my books is the online reviewer who couldn’t even read the cover of my 25th book correctly. It’s clearly subtitled a novel of suspense, but this nimrod criticized it for violating the rules of a mystery. The only response to someone who doesn’t fully appreciate the difference between the structure of a mystery and the structure of a suspense novel is a head smack.

Oh, and a blog.  🙂

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking and gun violence, and 24 other books in a wide range of genres which you can explore at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.

Maybe You’re Right and the Reviewers are Wrong?

As an author who’s done hundreds of readings and signings around the country (and abroad) I’m often asked about books on the best seller list and books in the news.  I learned a long time ago to be very careful how I answered those questions.  At the beginning of my career, a well-known author had warned me to watch what I said.  He’d made an unfortunate remark about one of his peers when he was starting out, and it had hurt him.

So I often turn the question around and ask what my audience member thinks.  Usually the response is: “I didn’t like it.” That’s why they asked the question in the first place.  They wanted the opportunity to express it publicly, and with an author present; somehow that makes it all more official or permissible–or both.

Everything is Illuminated is one novel I remember many people at various venues saying they found frantic and phony one year when I was out on tour; The Lovely Bones was another book people complained about a different time I was touring.  I didn’t like either one for various reasons, but all I said in either case was that the writing didn’t draw me in. That’s the territory I stake out: technique.

Disliking popular and acclaimed books has been on my mind lately, given the rapturous reviews for the movie of Gone Girl, which have pretty much followed the whole reviewing world’s take on the book. Seriously, is there a newspaper in the country that isn’t crazy in love with Gillian Flynn’s novel?

Friends whose opinion I respect have urged me to read it, and I tried more than once.  Really.  I never got very far.  I found the writing off-putting.  I tried her other books to be fair, and they didn’t work for me either stylistically.

But this isn’t the first time a universally acclaimed book hasn’t passed my smell test.  I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other outlets for over a decade and I often found myself at odds with the reviewing consensus.

So If it helps any of you out there who didn’t like Gone Girl, or found it boring, you’re not alone.  Take a closer look at the Gone Girl Amazon page.  The last time I checked, for the 14,000+ readers there who gave it four or five stars, 7,000 gave it only one, two, or three.  You’re not alone, and it’s okay.

 

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mash-up.  You can read about them here.

Bitten By A Vampire (Novel)

I’m teaching creative writing at Michigan State University this semester and one of the books my students are reading and discussing is Charlie Huston’s noirish Already Dead, a dazzling PI novel with a twist.  The tough guy private investigator/enforcer Joe Pitt is actually a vampire and one of his jobs is keeping lower Manhattan free of zombies.

Huston’s  worked out a terrific alternative reality in which vampirism is caused by a mysterious “Vyrus,” and I’ve read the book four times, marveling at his inventiveness. Already Dead is the only vampire novel except for Dracula that I’ve re-read, and it inspired me to launch into a genre I’d always enjoyed but never tried to write in.

Every writer has false starts, byways, and what seems like dead ends.  Huston made me dig out some good, juicy material I’d filed away while doing research on the Gilded Age for a historical novel riffing off of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

The material I’d set aside was mainly a bordello sex scene I really liked, but hadn’t figured out how or where to use. Bitten by Charlie Huston’s novel, I pulled up the folder on my PC, studied the scene and some notes, and realized that I had the makings of a short book: Rosedale the Vampyre.

 

It’s a dark story of powerlessness and grief that takes a very unexpected turn when its hero crosses over into a different reality and discovers life is entirely more satisfying for him as one of the Undead. Set in 1907 New York, the book is filled with period detail and sexual obsession. I’ve published books in almost a dozen different genres, but having created something that’s historical and supernatural, I feel as liberated and thrilled as my protagonist does when he first tastes blood.  And I understand from the inside, as a writer, the allure of this ultra-popular contemporary genre I’ve previously enjoyed only as a reader.

Now I’m hungry for more….

 

Following Elmore Leonard’s Rules?

Since his recent death, people have been posting and re-posting Leonard’s well-known rules for writers, which added together seem to suggest that you should write in a very lean way.  Kind of like Leonard himself.

One of the rules is “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”  But does Leonard follow his own advice? Here are some passages about the thug Richard Nobles in the novel LaBrava  (aren’t those great character names?)

He was thick all over, heavily muscled, going at least six-three, two-thirty.  Blond hair with a greenish tint in the floodlight: the hair uncombed, clots of it lying straight back on his head without a part, like he’d been swimming earlier and had raked it back with his fingers.  The guy wasn’t young up close.  Mid-thirties.  But he was the kind of guy–LaBrava knew by sight, smell and instinct–who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.  Homegrown jock–pumped his muscles and tested his strength when he wasn’t picking his teeth 

An ugly drunk.  Look at the eyes.  Ugly–used to people backing down, buying him another drink to shut him up.  Look at the shoulders stretching satin, the arms on him–Jesus–hands that looked like they could pound fence posts. 

Nobles, with his size, his golden hair, his desire to break and injure, his air of muscular confidence, was fascinating to watch.  A swamp creature on the loose.

I see plenty of rich, evocative detail there, and it’s all superbly well-chosen.  We get bits and pieces of the physical that create Nobles as an individual who’s anything but noble.  We also see him as a type known to LaBrava who’s assessing him, and the images are powerful (swamp creature, pounding fence posts).  Better yet, we have a tremendously evocative portrait of Nobles’s impact on people, the dangerously violent aura created by his mood and by his muscles.

It’s easy to quote Leonard, but it’s far more interesting to read him and see how closely he sticks to his own rules.  And then the question is, does it matter?

The Novel Vanishes

Years ago my dark family novel The German Money was optioned for film.  After my initial excitement, I read successive drafts of the screenplay with a sense of loss.  My novel was disappearing page by page.

In the end, the production deal fell apart and I was relieved: If the screenplay had been made, it would not have been my book that I was watching.

I thought of that reading the reviews of the new PBS film The Lady Vanishes.  Many compared it invidiously to the 1938 movie of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock based on The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.

Though widely admired, his film completely subverted the book’s tone and undercut its raw emotional power.  I find it painful to watch, almost amateurishly silly, one of Hitchcock’s weakest films.

However, the novel haunts me.  Iris Carr is a spoiled socialite, alone in the world though she’s surrounded by so-called friends and suitors.  She seems shallow, but she’s aware that the life she’s living is empty and that she’s been far too lucky in life.  All that changes when she gets terribly lost on her Balkan vacation and realizes how isolated she is, and how vulnerable.

Those feelings intensify on her train ride across the Balkans to Trieste when her English seat mate disappears, Iris claims a conspiracy, and passengers call her everything from a mere nuisance to hysterical.

The new movie is splendid and frightening, and very true to the novel. But I doubt the critics who disliked it bothered to read the novel or they wouldn’t be calling this new version a “remake” of Hitchcock’s film when it’s not.  Watching The Lady Vanishes, I wished the writer adapting The German Money book had been even half as interested in capturing the essence of my book.