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.

 

Why I’ve Been Publishing Academic Satire Long Before It Was Discovered by Netflix

In my academic mystery series, I exiled professors to basement offices well before The Chair became a series starring Sandra Oh.  I’ve seen much worse behavior and it’s inspired my fictional English department since the 90s.  The New York Times Book Review has noted that “The Borgias would not be bored at the State University of Michigan, that snake pit of academic politics.”

Of course they wouldn’t.  Academia  has the egomania of professional sports; the hypocrisy of politics; the cruelty of big business; and the inhumanity of organized crime.

But fans sometimes ask me if academia is really that bad.  Are professors that selfish, backbiting, and ungenerous?  Yes, they can be. Academic culture from school to school has quirks and even idiocies that make great material for satire (and crime).  Sometimes the behavior is egregious, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. Either way, it’s great fodder for fiction.

Here’s a case in point.  At one private college where I read from one of my most successful books, I wasn’t brought in by English or Creative Writing faculty, but by a different department.

I love readings.  I have a theater background, years of experience on radio, and I’ve done hundreds of readings on three continents. I’ve also taught workshops for writers on how to do readings; they require practice, art, and planning.

Only four people turned up for this particular campus reading, and the disappointed coordinator explained why.  Whenever she brought in a speaker who writing students would naturally be interested in, English and Creative Writing professors consistently failed to do anything to promote the reading.  They wouldn’t be co-sponsors, didn’t encourage their students to show up, and basically boycotted the event.  Why?  Territoriality.  Apparently they felt that  they’re the only ones who should be inviting authors to campus.

It made me laugh, because it seemed so typical of academic pettiness.  But it also made me sad because the writing students might have learned something and enjoyed themselves.

I never obsess about  numbers when I do a reading: 4 or 400,  the audience deserves my best, and that’s what I gave them at this college.  Too bad the small-minded English Department and its writing professors don’t do the same, don’t really care enough about their own students to point them towards opportunities right there on their own little campus.  It makes you wonder how else they may be giving students less than they deserve as they jealously defend what think is their turf and nobody else’s.

Lev Raphael’s latest academic mystery is Department of Death.  He mentors and coaches writers as well as edits manuscripts in all genres at writewithoutborders.com.

An Amazing Rave Review Thrust Me Into the Spotlight

The New York Times ruled in my family when I was growing up in Manhattan.  My mother especially loved the Sunday Magazine articles, my brother relished the daily puzzles, and I enjoyed reading book reviews and features about authors.

I wanted to be an author myself as early as second grade, when I started writing short stories.  And of course, I wanted to have a book of mine reviewed in the Times, someday because I thought that would be the ultimate sign I had made it.

Well, years later, I was heartbroken when I heard from a writer friend that he had heard my first book of short stories was going to be reviewed there.  I waited and waited, but nothing happened.  Then I published a biography and study of Edith Wharton’s fiction.  No review.  Two strikes.

At that point, I was discouraged enough to think I would never be reviewed in the Times.  I should have taken hope from lines Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote:

But, as know, precisely at the moment/when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.

One Monday, I got a call from my agent that my second mystery had just gotten a rave review from Marilyn Stasio, the most important mystery reviewer in the country.  My agent’s assistant faxed it to me and as I read the review, I actually jumped up and down for joy.  Friends started contacting me, my editor was thrilled as was my publisher, and I started hearing reports that the book wasn’t just being shelves in Mystery and Gay Literature sections in bookstores, but sometimes in Fiction right next to Edith Wharton.  And face out, which makes a big difference when it comes to sales.

The review offered great pull-quotes like this one:  “Killing is too kind for the vindictive scholars in Lev Raphael’s maliciously funny campus mystery.”  And because it was in the New York Times, publishers would use various parts of the review on  mysteries I’d write after that one.  Likewise, many people introducing me at events where I’ve done talks and readings have referred to the review.  It’s a kind of touchstone, even though I’ve gotten many more good ones in other newspapers and magazines since then.   The Times is that impressive.

The Edith Wharton Murders has recently been re-published with a gorgeous new cover, a foreward by noted author Gregory Ashe, and an introduction the publisher asked me to write.  Seeing it reborn brings back the thrill of being a new author having his biggest dream come true.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages, and Special Collections at Michigan State University’s Library archives his literary papers.

 

Academia: A Nest of Vipers?

Over the years and on many book tours for my mysteries, people have asked me “Is academia as vicious as all that?”

The answer is Absolutely. How do I know? Because I not only escaped that world with lots of notes, but I have many friends who are still there, reporting one fiction-worthy incident after another to me.  Reality, not satire about the university,  is what’s over-the-top.

I’ll start with a minor example that shows you how petty and small-minded academia can be. Back in 2011, I was invited to teach at Michigan State University’s English department, where I had earned my PhD years before. The current chair had realized via a news story that I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. He was impressed, and I was flattered.

When I started teaching, the office manager wouldn’t order a plastic name plate for my office door, the kind that all the faculty members had. We’re talking about something that costs just a few bucks and is recyclable, for a department with a budget well in the millions. That was as silly as it was insulting.

My mystery State University of Murder focuses on a charming but dictatorial chairman of an English Department, Napoléon Padovani, who manages to alienate almost all his colleagues in an oppression blitzkrieg. He’s a composite of department chairs I’ve heard about from across the country.

One chair 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 might win the prize. The pressure was intense, the competition ugly and brutal. 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.

And another chair 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.

A religious studies chairman I know of argued with a rabbi teaching in his department as an adjunct that Judaism was absolutely not a culture but could only be spoken about and taught as a religion. Their disagreement was a major reason the rabbi wasn’t rehired.  I should add that the chair was not Jewish.

When my office mate at Michigan State University reported that a graduate student in the department who was a former boyfriend had burst into her apartment, knocking the door off her hinges, and roughed up her current boyfriend and threatened her, the chair did absolutely nothing.

And dispatches from a department I know report that the current atmosphere is “Stalinist.” While there’s significant disapproval of actions the chair is taking to limit academic freedom and free speech, those faculty members who disagree are afraid to speak up for fear of harassment and punishment. And the faculty listserv is now off limits to discussion of anything remotely “controversial.”  Anyone stepping out of line is instantly attacked and vilified.

My Nick Hoffman series is satirical, taking real situations and people, extrapolating from them, making them more ridiculous, more threatening–but the emotional core is ultimately true. And the emotional 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 in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently Department of Death.  He mentors and coaches writers at writewithoutborders.com.  This blog originally appeared at Mystery Fanfare.

The Shocking Truth About Universities

When I was in graduate school, my wonderful dissertation advisor told me that he was determined to do a good, humane job getting me through without delays.  Why? Because his own advisor had been a hyper-critical nightmare.  My advisor kept his word: thanks to him, I finished writing my dissertation and defended it successfully in under a year.

Horror stories about abusive dissertation advisors and feuding dissertation committees are common in graduate schools across the country–you don’t have to look hard to find them.  Even casual cruelty makes the life of graduate students miserable.  Because I write an academic mysteries series, people share these stories with me from around the country.

Just recently I heard of a PhD candidate whose rigid advisor refused to let the student show ongoing work to anyone else on the dissertation committee.  That left this student feeling isolated and extremely anxious.  Talking about  mistreatment to other graduate students in the program felt impossible–that’s how strong the professor’s grip was.

Then there are the adjuncts or “contingent faculty”: overworked, underpaid, uninsured, and treated at some schools almost like pariahs.  Sometimes they don’t even have office space, or too many of them share a tiny office.  Tenure-track faculty belittle them unconsciously or even openly, no matter what they might have accomplished in their field.  Department chairs treats them like cannon fodder.

I know of one university where an adjunct who had the same degrees and had published far more than tenure-track peers was shut out of teaching upper level courses because of faculty jealousy.  Qualifications and experience didn’t matter–it was all about people protecting their tiny fiefdoms.

And students probably suffer more than anyone.  Stories reach me about how they’re bullied and put down publicly by their tenured professors.  I’ve been told about students reduced to trembling and even tears in the classroom.  Sometimes the mistreatment is more subtle: a professor will only call on favorite students, or might ignore something one student says but praise another student for making the identical observation.  Do students complain?  Rarely, because they’re afraid to, despite flashy news stories about campus protests.

None of this brutality is like the sexual violence on campus we read about, or the bigotry targeting various minorities–but it’s part of the atmosphere all the same. No matter how scenic the campus, colleges and universities can be surprisingly toxic for more people than outsiders imagine.  So when people at my book readings ask me, “Aren’t you exaggerating?  Are colleges really that bad?”  I don’t hesitate saying “No.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Little Miss Evil and seven other Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the dangerous world of academia.