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Tucson Weekly Murder And Mayhem

Mystery Writer Lev Raphael Delivers Another Fun-Filled Course In Campus Intrigue With 'Death Of A Constant Lover.'

By Randall Holdridge

MAY 3, 1999: 

The Death of a Constant Lover, by Lev Raphael (Walker). Cloth, $23.95.

THE THIRD IN Lev Raphael's Nick Hoffman mystery series, The Death of a Constant Lover is solid as a whodunit, and the best satire yet of personal and political intrigue on the campus of a big, state university.

For newcomers, Nick Hoffman is an untenured, gay professor in the department of English and American Studies and Rhetoric (EAR) at SUM--the State University of Michigan. Author of only a slim bibliography of Edith Wharton, Nick holds his appointment by virtue of his significant partnership with Stefan Borowski, a writer of highly regarded literary fiction that doesn't sell. Son of Holocaust survivors, Stefan is a stern, broody fitness fanatic, the perfect foil to Nick's garrulous, gadabout ways. Despite his primary preoccupation with his domestic relationship and tenure review, Nick has a knack for stumbling on campus murder scenes in the best tradition of the amateur detective.

This time the first victim is pale, pierced Christian fundamentalist Jesse Benevento, disaffected son of SUM's history department chairman. The motive for the crime is obscure, since the stabbing took place in a confused melee after campus jocks and frat boys assaulted a stranger passing out Bibles on campus. Hapless and homophobic campus policeman Detective Valley takes up the case, beleaguered as he is by a campus crime wave: "Rape in the arboretum, stealing backpacks in the library, lifting wallets at the football games, getting drunk on Friday night and breaking car windows, setting bonfires. Flashers. Vandalism. Graffiti. Peeping Toms. Arson. Drug addicts."

With a piece of masterful misdirection, Raphael turns Nick's attention--and ours--elsewhere. Specifically, it's time to introduce the university administrators and EAR department members who will, in due course, become the suspects. Anyone who's attended a giant public university, especially graduate students, will be highly entertained. The operating principle is that the most valuable function of universities is to provide quarantine for the vile, whining, misfit megalomaniacs who become college professors.

Stefan is above it all, of course, and Nick is the popular classroom raconteur who loves teaching more than research, taking improbable joy from his Solomonic grading of papers written by students in freshman comp. The rest of the cast comes straight from the Addams Family, but they are familiar.

College president (and former varsity football coach) Webb Littleterry believes he's making a sea change in education by his admonition that students are "consumers," and the university a service enterprise. Dean Magnus Bullerschmidt, a contender for provost, dresses in sharkskin suits and carries his considerable weight like a Mafia don. His rival, EAR department head Coral Greathouse, intimidates by prim silences; after the murder she schedules an emergency department meeting so that "Douglas and Anka Nelson from the Counseling Center [can] talk to us today about grief and loss."

This department meeting sets off fireworks between Juno Dromgoole, visiting professor of Canadian studies (dressed always in sleek black with faux leopard trim), and Lucille Mochtar, the dreadlocked half-black, half-Chinese Indonesian expert on Toni Morrison (hired for faculty diversity in the mistaken belief that she is Muslim).

Betty and Bill Malatesta get to represent TAs around the country: ambitious, overworked, underappreciated and hugely resentful. A favorite character might be Polly Flockhart, the highly efficient, always perkily professional departmental secretary who listens to C&W on the radio and practices astral projection. Less colorful are "boring Carter Savery and grim, miserable Iris Bell...Iris was perpetually complaining about being under-recognized in EAR, and Carter was as blandly self-satisfied as Jabba the Hutt." Of course, all these people are having sex.

With such caricatures at play, no sacred academic ox goes ungored. Political correctness, publish or perish, student combativeness about grades, fluff course offerings, sexual harassment lawsuits, tenure committees, university/legislature relations, teaching awards, personnel evaluation files--it's all here: "Being grounded, being steeped in a subject doesn't count for anything. Research doesn't mean anything. Slinging around Lacan and Kristeva and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is what matters. The more incomprehensible and self-important your language, the narrower your focus, the better." You get the idea, and it's pretty funny; casual, lighthearted, never a rant.

In addition to his Hoffman mysteries, Raphael has authored both scholarly texts and literary fiction, and he also takes on book publishing and marketing--how writers' careers and reputations are made and broken in commercial terms. Nick's lover, Stefan, has just learned that his publisher will not accept his sixth novel, despite academic recognition and a train of respectful reviews, because his sales are declining. Across the street, Lucille Mochtar's husband Didier, a former high-school English teacher, lolls in a hot tub purchased by his half-million dollar advance for a personal memoir called Sterility, which has been hyped in Vanity Fair magazine.

Through all this, possible motives for murder have been piling up. There's a second violent death, Nick bears down, and voila!, the solution. Puzzle solvers beware--the main clue is both literary and arcane.

As among women and cowboys, homosexual sleuths are abounding these days. Nick Hoffman has the usual characteristics: he's fixated on fine dining, vintage wines, interior decoration and the history of his relationship with his parents. Fortunately, he's also unembittered and refreshingly natural, and he has the great advantage to own a creator who is well-read and witty. In the next installment, Nick will be teaching a SUM course in the mystery novel, and you can bet we'll find out just what Raphael thinks about developments in detective fiction.


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