The Edith Wharton Murders by Lev Raphael

I bought this book at the Gerber/Hart Library‘s book sale some time ago and wasn’t planning to read it just now, but as I was browsing around my office trying to locate Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, I stumbled upon The Edith Wharton Murders and it sort of lodged in my brain housing group. Apparently I lost my copy of The Price of Salt or perhaps I just imaged that I owned one because I can’t find it. So, I decided to read The Edith Wharton Murders instead as it fits in with Roof Beam Reader’s The Literary Others, a reading event for October in celebration of LGBT history month (#OthersLitLGBT on Twitter).

Nick Hoffman, desperate to get tenure, has been saddled with a thankless task: coordinating a conference on Edith Wharton that will demonstrate how his department and his university supports women’s issues. There’s been widespread criticism that SUM is really the State University of Men. Problem is, he’s forced to invite two warring Wharton societies, and the conflict between rival scholars escalates from mudslinging to murder. Nick’s job and whole career are on the line unless he can help solve the case and salvage the conference.

This is the first novel I’ve read by Lev Raphael. A few years ago I read his memoir, My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped and fell a little in love with Lev. When I saw The Edith Wharton Murders at the book sale I had to get it.

On the back of the edition I own, Raphael is described as “an escaped academic.” His great sense of humor combined with recovering from a love/hate relationship with academic life, specifically English Department Life, rings true for me. And the two warring Wharton societies made me think of Joan Acocella’s Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. There’s also the issue of how some academics and writers become media darlings while others, who are perhaps more worthy, are neglected.

The mystery itself is a slow unfolding, more like a classic British mystery than a page-turning thriller, but if you like academic satire or books about the writing life, this might be up your alley. I especially enjoyed the swipes taken at various theoretical camps:

Looking like he was ready to throttle Gallup, Van Deegan Jones shouted back, “You’re a fraud, an imposer, a charlatan. You jumped on the Wharton bandwagon because she was trendy. And ever since, you’ve been covering up your lack of knowledge about Wharton with abstruse critical language. You’re the last person in the world to talk about original scholarship! You have nothing to say to you hide behind Derrida and Lacan. Derrida is caca, and Lacan is a con! (138).

Or how about this scene, which anyone who has ever attended a literary conference or writers workshop can probably related to:

There weren’t questions, except those fake academic conference questions that are thinly disguised speeches, and everyone who stood up to talk had the same spirited distaste for Scorcese’s work. There was little or no dispute about any point as the criticism rose and crested (159).

And Raphael takes some shots at popular writers as well. The Stefan mentioned below is Nick Hoffman’s partner:

Grace-Dawn Vaughan wrote Big Books with far-fetched plots, shallow but showy characters, and improbable coincidences. I dreaded the way our conference would be transformed in fiction by a woman who could write about a character cutting her wrists after having lived “on the jagged edges of her broken dreams.” Stefan had read me that line, howling, after getting one of her books from the SUM library when I told him she’d be attending the conference. Her writing was almost as florid and ungrammatical as David Baldacci’s in Absolute Power” (207-208).

Ouch.

These are some of the ‘bitchiest’ quotes, but they certainly add some realism to the academic setting. I think civilians tend to think of academics as calm, reasoned, and dispassionate, when actually some  can be argumentative, defensive, and completely unwilling to see other points of view or contradictory evidence. Raphael wonderfully captures some of these types.

There’s also a funny scene that booksellers will nod in recognition over. A writer tells Nick,

“There are times I’ve been in bookstores and when I saw her books face out, I turned them so that only the spine was visible. And that’s not all. I’ve slipped her books behind others on a shelf so no one could see them unless they were looking for them” (121-122).

Believe it or not, that happens fairly regularly in bookstores, especially with political books. Once I even had an old lady who counted all the political books on a display table, split them into what she considered conservative and liberal categories, and demanded to know why we had more of one type than the other. I don’t miss working in a big box bookstore during election season, that’s for sure.

Anyway, The Edith Wharton Murders is a fun academic satire, with a dark underbelly. There are murders, and gay and lesbian academics are dealing with an administration on the verge of being overtaken by the religious right, which threatens more than just their academic freedom.

This is the second book in Raphael’s Nick Hoffman Mystery Series. I haven’t read the first one, Let’s Get Criminal (1996), but I do own and plan on reading the third book, The Death of a Constant Lover (1999).

The Edith Wharton Murders
Lev Raphael
St. Martin’s Press, 1997
Source: bought a used copy at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives

Thanks to Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer for her tips and tricks feature that explained how to add that little colored box.

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