‘Burning Down the House’: Up From The Ashes

Nick Hoffman is a very confused man. The untenured professor and star of Lev Raphael’s four mystery novels faces a bleak future from his unwanted connection with several murders. He’s concerned about the rise of hate crimes against gays on campus. Even his sexuality has come under assault by his unexpected attraction to Juno Dromgoole, the voluptuous Canadian professor who’s a force of nature in spandax. Not that he’s against such connections, but his long-time male lover might object.

Worse, the State University of Michigan is under considerable turmoil. A new administrator has pushed the faculty to open revolt with her high-handed ways. If that built the bonfire, the presence of a Christmas “Diversity Tree” and the possibility of a Whiteness Studies program is the equivalent of dumping gasoline and tossing on the flaming torch. And Juno’s campaign to become chairman of Nick’s department is being undermined with threats. Nick tries to negotiate these land mines, but his search for the source of these attacks compels him to reach a possibly life-changing conclusion.

As a former professor, Lev Raphael has plenty of material to etch his acidic portrayals. There are few good people. The administrators and faculty are deadly ambitious, hilariously inept or simply clueless. Back-biting and rumor-mongering are traditional ways to gain power or revenge. Meetings tend to degenerate into accusations and chaos. In this context, violence seems like just another way to get ahead; cannibalism the logical conclusion of a bloody-minded faculty meeting.

“Burning Down the House” marks a new direction among the amateur detective subset of the mystery genre. It’s less a mystery novel than the culmination of threads woven in Raphael’s previous books, beginning with “Let’s Get Criminal.” Nick’s confrontations with violence and death has been changing him, from a buoyant teacher to a more edgier version, flirting with the possibility of violence. This can make “Burning” an unsettling book at times; Nick is almost manic in his reaction to Juno and the crimes he’s witnessed. The lead protagonist honestly being affected by violence is rarely seen in this part of the mystery field; most either start out that way, or never seem to mind constantly being surrounded by bodies. Following Nick’s journey into the dark side of human nature alone makes the next book in the series worth watching for.