Why I Write Queer Crime Fiction

I never set out to write mysteries, queer or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has secured an ex-lover a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged and then depressed and a bit crazed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.  It was comic but also focused on the struggles of being a couple years before marriage equality changed the landscape.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, my editor, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school and are happily married, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books; and I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for the Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving queer couple over time and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never could have imagined.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.  And of course, the unexpected keeps happening to Nick and Stefan living in a bucolic college town that has a dark side.  Through all of it, however, their bond is never shaken.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable.” He mentors writers, edits manuscripts, and teaches writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

(fingerprint image by Kurious at Pixabay)

 

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.

Guidelines For a Last-Minute Faculty Hire

Stop sign 01

 

Greetings!

We’re thrilled that you can be teaching for us on such short notice. Speaking as chair of the creative writing program, we’re all so very proud to have you, especially since you’re an alumnus and live in-state. Here are some important guidelines we didn’t discuss in our texts and emails:

Please do not mention in class the tenured professor who you’re replacing and his unfortunate tirade about what he wrongly called “cancel culture” and “the Twitter mob” after he quoted James Baldwin and was justly excoriated. We all wish him a speedy recovery. He’ll be back next semester after his guided retreat of struggle and self-interrogation.

You have absolute and total freedom to assign any writing exercises and readings you choose in your introductory and advanced fiction courses, but they cannot include trigger or pre-trigger words of any kind whatsoever, and so I urge you to contact the Vetting Committee ASAP. You’ll find them very thorough.

We also expect you to submit your course materials and each syllabus to the Committee on Cultural Appropriation and Misappropriation and abide by their decisions as well as those of the Vetting Committee. Both committees work with dispatch and I must say a keen sense of honor and duty. You’ll feel inspired.

We picked you for your distinguished publishing record, but we urge you not to refer to yourself as a “working writer”–which you did more than once in our communications. This label could be seen as offensive, derogatory, and demeaning by other faculty who are proud that they’ve made their homes in academe. Mentioning your Pulitzer also validates hetero-normative and hierarchical notions of value.

In our discussions, you presented yourself as knowing “the publishing world inside and out” and said this was something special that you could offer students. I surely don’t need to point out that all of our creative writing faculty offer students something special. Your statement could be seen as arrogance, puffery, and blatant self-promotion.

You were an obvious and natural choice, having published more books in more genres than the entire creative writing faculty combined (please keep that to yourself). Making too much of these accomplishments might overwhelm your students and be interpreted as bullying or intimidation, while also disrespecting your colleagues (see above).

When students speak their truth, it is incumbent on you to not ask for explanations, clarifications, or in any way seem to challenge what they say. Your part is silent. Do not display any change of expression and definitely do not ask other students to comment. These actions will be reported and you could face dismissal.

Lastly, as a temporary professor, you will not be sitting in on any faculty meetings as your presence would most likely be anomalous and disruptive. We also won’t be giving you a plastic name sign for your office door since you’ll be here for just the one semester, but feel free to mention us in any interviews you do. We would appreciate the publicity.

Have fun!

Lev Raphael is the author of Department of Death and nine other mysteries set at the fictional State University of Michigan.

“Stop sign 01” by kirstyhall is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Edith Wharton Murders Giveaway

In my breakout mystery The Edith Wharton Murders, two rival Wharton societies are brought together in one conference–and murder results. I got the idea at a Wharton conference.

Nobody was killed there, but I think a lot of people had their pride wounded.  One of the keynote speakers subtly dissed the attendees for paying so much attention to Wharton (!) when there was another writer this professor considered more important. The keynote speaker went on to praise this lesser-known writer.

That was before smart phones, so nobody was able to look the writer up while the keynote address went on. I’ll always remember how that moment typified the jockeying for position that goes on in academia 24/7. But that’s the mild stuff.  Professors undermine their rivals’ reputations with gossip and hostile journal essays, poach each other’s graduate students, launch Twitter campaigns to get them removed from programs or even fired.

Of course it’s all much more entertaining in a mystery if you have actual corpses.

My college mentor, a Wharton bibliographer, was at the conference, and so I wrote her into the book as a best friend and relative of my sleuth Nick Hoffman. He’s been given the thankless task of bringing two warring factions in the Edith Wharton field together and thinks of them as no better than gangbangers with advanced degrees.   I invented snark of all kinds, inspired by stories people across the country had told me about Ivory Tower insanity, and motives for murder were easy to come by.

St. Martin’s Press published the book and I met with the editor who was in love with the whole idea at my favorite café near Lincoln Center. I was in New York for the American production of Tom Stoppard‘s stunning play Arcadia. I’d seen the original production in London a few years before, so the night was filled with glamour and excitement for me, and all of that comes back whenever I think about the book.

The mystery earned me my first review in the New York Times and it was a rave: a writer’s dream come true.  I will never forget how thrilled I was when my agent faxed the review to me.  One of the coolest things I heard about the book’s reception out in the world was that it wasn’t just showing up on mystery shelves at bookstores, it was also being shelved alongside books of Edith Wharton herself.

The Edith Wharton Murders is out now with a fourth publisher and a fun new cover (its fourth!). You can find a review and a book giveaway at the following website: https://www.krlnews.com/2020/09/the-edith-wharton-murders-by-lev-raphael.html

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 of are 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.”

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.

I Don’t Read English Novels–And Neither Should You!

Celebrity Irish writer Marian Keyes made headlines recently when she said she doesn’t read male writers because their lives aren’t as interesting as women’s lives–they were “limited.”  I totally get her frustration.

Because I don’t read English writers.  I mean I know that they write books, but if I can read books by American writers, why bother?  What could be more limited than an English novel?

I hear about all those English books when they get made into endless boring shows on PBS, but what’s the point?  English people’s lives are beyond limited.  Poldark?  Seriously?  I watched ten minutes and all they did was walk back and forth along cliffs with the wind blowing through their hair, though sometimes they rode back and forth along cliffs.  That says almost everything you need to know about England.  Oh yeah, there’s also Jane Austen.  Bonnets.

The English truly have such limited experience.  I mean, come on, they live on a crummy little island for God’s sake and nobody even gets voted off (well maybe immigrants down the road thanks to Boris Johnson)  And it’s not even their own island.  They have to share it with two other countries, Wales, whatever that is, and Scotland, which at least has whiskey.

You see all those goofy soldiers at Buckingham Palace marching back and forth like Poldark without cliffs and when’s the last time the English won a war on their own without American help?  That was against Napoleon, right?

Haven’t there been enough English novels been written already–can’t they just give it a rest? Don’t the English have better things?  Like figure out why they’re so brutal to people marrying into that hot mess royal family?  And why that whole Brexit thing was like they were the drunk-ass party guest who keeps saying he’s going but just won’t get the hell off your couch?

I admit I might read an occasional English novel if I’m crazy bored, but Americans, we really know how to live la vida loca.  I mean look at us now: D.C. drama 24/7, exciting tweets every few minutes.  We’re in the fast lane.  And driving on the right side of the road, too.

So English writers, just **** off, as Marian Keyes said about her male colleagues, without the asterisks, of course, bless her heart.

Writer’s View: Celebrity Irish Author Tells Her Male Peers To “**** Off”

That’s what The Daily Mail quotes superstar Irish novelist Marian Keyes as having recently said:

“I only read women. I know that men write books. But their lives are so limited. It’s such a small and narrow experience….Their literature just really can’t match anything written by a woman. I just think ‘**** off’.”

If you haven’t heard of her, she’s written thirteen novels, sold tens of millions of books, and seen her work translated into several dozen languages.

Her dismissal of male authors was seconded by journalist Suzanne Moore, who complained that woman authors aren’t taken seriously.  She also warned readers of The Guardian, where she made these comments, not to send her names of great male writers since she knew who they were because she’d had “an education.”

Those remarks made me think of my own education.

I was an English major in college.  Along with the usual male suspects we read Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, the Brontes, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In graduate school along with Conrad, James, Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell, and Phillip Roth, we read Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Gertrude Stein, Doris Lessing, Susan Hill, Margaret Drabble, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark.

But more importantly than all of that, on my own I’ve read dozens of women writers including Agatha Christie, Ann Tyler, Elizabeth Taylor, Rebecca West,  Anais Nin, Elizabeth Gaskell, Daphne du Maurier Olivia Manning, Ruth Rendell, Francine Prose, Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Braddon, Val McDermid, Stella Gibbons, Alison Lurie, Anzia Yezierska, Penelope Fitzgerald, Laurie R. King, C.S. Harris, Lori Rader-Day, Janet Fitch, Mona Simpson.

Those are the names of women authors that come most quickly to  mind.  I could add many more if I took the time to scan my library shelves.  Should I have to?  Gender has never mattered to me.  I’ve always looked for fine writing and compelling stories.  I often went on to read more by each author, sometimes hunting down everything in print if a first book hypnotized me.

Education isn’t a passive thing.  It’s not just waiting for books to be assigned to you, it’s seeking out books that you think might change the way you see the world or at the very least, open the doors to a new one.

Marian Keyes  admits that she reads an occasional book by a man, but she seems strangely limited herself to dismiss an entire gender’s writing so readily.  Since she’s famous already, I’m sure what she’s said will gain her even more fans, because inflammatory remarks like hers are crowd pleasers and bound to go viral.

There may well be caps, t-shirts, and all sorts of swag. She might even get her own talk show.  With no male guests if they’re authors, of course.  Because what could they possibly have to say when their lives are so impoverished of experience?

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

Review: Is Garth Greenwell Really A Genius?

Garth Greenwell has a new book out.  When he published his debut a few years ago, the response from critics reminded me of my many years reviewing for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications.  Back then, my colleagues sometimes struck me like a pack of wolves. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo everywhere. The raves often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really earth-shattering?

The panegyrics about What Belongs to You when it came out had put me off, but a creative writing student of mine told me he found it interesting, so I decided to read it.

The narrator was a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who got involved with an increasingly demanding hustler he met in a public toilet. One British reviewer said this novel actually made her tremble, while another hailed it as “incandescent.”  That’s apparently the official word of choice for Greenwell’s work since it’s been applied to his latest book, too.

A New York Times reviewer called that debut an “instant classic” and compared the book to a Jackson Pollack painting, which seemed wildly inappropriate given its overall lack of energy.

Aside from listless prose, the major problem I had was the obnoxious, dishonest grifter. We were supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to this Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features were a chipped tooth and being well hung.  The sex scenes were minimal and boring, which was problematic since the narrator’s sexual obsession seemed design to drive the book forward.  They didn’t.  It crawled.

While the novel’s framing sections were way too languid, the middle section worked best because the prose was more direct and compelling, less writerly.  In those pages we experienced the narrator’s shameful memories of growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book and my iPad screen didn’t glow, but I felt the author was far more deeply engaged. He spoiled it, though, when the narrator found a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of that section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Yes, dude.  We totally got it.  The narrator was trapped.  Thanks for clarifying that.  The sequence was like one of those corny songs at the end of a movie filled with lyrics explaining what you just saw in case you were too dumb to understand the two hours you’d just sat through.

Nobody recommended the new book Cleanness to me, but I started it anyway out of morbid curiosity.  I found the same overlong, airless, flat sentences that weighed down What Belongs to You and had to give up.  Greenwell is being compared to Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and D.H. Lawrence.

Calls for a Nobel Prize are probably next.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

The Poisonous World of American Universities

Essays, stories, and books of mine have been taught at colleges and universities around the country, so I’ve been invited to speak at many different institutions over the years, from Ivy League schools to community colleges.

They’ve all had something in common. Invariably, a faculty member will take me aside during my time there and tell me about somebody wildly eccentric or even out-of-control in their department. Or about a scandal, a schism, some long-simmering vendetta. And I think to myself, “You can’t make this stuff up…”

There was a professor who told me she had to quit serving on hiring committees because a senior professor announced that he didn’t like a candidate because “He smells.” Nobody else had noticed anything (not that it should have mattered) but they yielded to the professor’s seniority. Another related the story of a professor who unexpectedly and savagely attacked his own student at the student’s doctoral defense just to undermine a rival professor on the committee who liked his student. Crazy, right?

I’ve heard of people with barely any publications get tenure through favoritism and then when they achieved their ultimate goal of becoming administrators, they become petty, smiling dictators over faculty with far more experience and reputation. There’s constant infighting, piss-poor collegiality—but worst of all, the sad stories of contemptuous professors who treat their students like dirt. And lately, of course, stories of sexual harassment and abuse have darkened the picture.

I love teaching and come from a family of teachers. I left academia after over a decade of teaching because I wanted to write full-time, and my editor at St. Martin’s Press encouraged me to start a mystery series set in that environment. Outsiders slam academia for not being “the real world,” but I disagree 100%.

At times it’s far too real and so are many of its denizens: petty, vain, hypocritical, self-righteous, power-hungry, wildly egotistical, obsessed with stats (perceived or real).

I set my series at the fictional State University of Michigan in “Michiganapolis” somewhere in mid-Michigan. Outsiders can make great observers and sleuths, so my sleuth Nick Hoffman is primarily a composition teacher there. That’s made him low man on the totem pole in his Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric—especially since he enjoys teaching this basic course. He’s even more of an outsider because he’s published something useful, a bibliography of Edith Wharton, as opposed to a recondite work of criticism only a few dozen people might read or understand. On top of all that, he’s from the East Coast, he’s Jewish in a mostly Gentile department, and he’s out.

Seven years ago, I was recruited to teach creative writing at Michigan State University when the chair of the English Department realized I’d published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. I’ve had amazing students to work with, known a few friendly colleagues, and most importantly, I was able to pass on the terrific mentoring I got in college. But in my years at MSU I’ve heard more stories of mistreatment, poisonous arrogance, and basic cruelty on campus and from friends teaching across the country. It’s all material, of course–but it shouldn’t have to be.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in a wide range of genres including the just-published State University of Murder.