‘The Edith Wharton Murders’: Publish and Perish

Professor Nick Hoffman is a very small fish swimming with the tenured and powerful sharks at the State University of Michigan, so his future in academia hangs in the balance when he is asked to pull together a conference on Edith Wharton.

It is a request that threatens to unhinge Hoffman’s career, his sanity or both. Created to shore up the school’s shaky multicultural reputation, the conference has to be thrown together in six months, and the success of the event depends upon the cooperation of two Wharton societies who despise each other. Think of them as the Jets and the Sharks, only with much shabbier clothes.

Troubles pile onto troubles for Hoffman, who also has to contend with attendees with agendas: an obnoxious romance writer, who wrote a fluffy biography about Wharton that both societies despise, and her equally toxic editor; a university trustee who condemns Hoffman’s homosexuality; and the star of the conference, Chloe DeVore, the literary light who brings along her feuding lover, and whose presence disturbs one of Hoffman’s academic colleagues.

Then, one of the attendees gets bashed in the head with a marble tile. Unless Hoffman discovers who did it and why, the resulting firestorm of bad publicity could chase him away from SUM and even his lover.

A self-professed “recovering academic,” author Lev Raphael knows of life beyond the classroom. His books ring true with the details of that life, and he casts a caustic eye on university politics, academic posturing and pseudo-intellectual claptrap. In his view, the academic world is cloistered, intellectually incestuous and filled with political infighting that would rival the Borgias. Hell to work in, great to read about.

And as for Nick Hoffman, bless his scattered mind, his fragile heart and his love for Edith Wharton’s work. He is an appealing man, sympathetic for his desperate situation, and attractive for his taste in music and food. The revenge of good living make up a good part of this series, and here we get descriptions dishes like sweet potato and foie gras ravioli, butterflied leg of lamb stuffed with spinach, mint, and orange zest, and Grand Marnier ice cream in white chocolate shells amid the strains of Liszt. If he’s not as quick with the bon mots and bitchy remarks as in “Let’s Get Criminal” — although certain popular writers like David Balducchi and the current craze for memoirs come in for their share of abuse — it may be because he is touched by murder more than the usual series character. This is a sign that Raphael is a writer who came late to the mystery genre; he avoids most of the pitfalls that tattoos a mystery writer, and it is this attention to the characters and their complex, sometimes contradictory emotions and desires, that sets his work above the rest.