‘Death of a Constant Lover’: Watching the Professors

If you can’t go home again, you can always return for a visit or two. Self-described recovering academic Lev Raphael left university teaching for a full-time writing career. In between producing more literary works — a novel, a collection of short stories and an analysis of Edith Wharton’s fiction — he’s also written three witty mysteries skewing the academic world he left.

His comic alter ego, Nick Hoffman, came to the State University of Michigan to teach classes in the English, American Studies and Rhetoric Department and to be with Stefan, his partner. He also wants to make tenure. But his sharp tongue, lack of allies and preference for teaching over research hurts his chances enough if it weren’t for all the bodies he keeps discovering.

By the time Raphael’s third book opens, Hoffman’s career is foundering and sinking fast. His involvement as amateur detective has brought unfavorable publicity to the university, and his chances darken further by simply being within eyeshot of a murder — this time of a young man killed during a melee between a campus preacher and a group of students.

“The Death of a Constant Lover” — the title is a reference to 19th-century English novelist Benjamin Constant — is more a novel of university life and politics than a murder mystery. The investigation moves in fits and starts as Hoffman finds himself also dealing with other problems: death threats are being sent to his office mate, a woman hired to fulfill SUM’s diversity quota, and the fallout to his relationship with Stefan when he is dropped by his publisher.

Raphael’s third book is somewhat different from his first two. Hoffman’s joie de vive is dampened by the violence around him, making “Death of a Constant Lover” not so much a darker book — we’re not talking about James Ellroy here — but simply not as bright and vivacious than the first two books. That’s not a criticism so much as an observation that Raphael has put his finger on a key problem with the detecting genre. Death is serious business, and cracking jokes around the body like Noel Coward sounds too much like dancing on skeletons.

Of the three books in the series so far, “Death of a Constant Lover” is a deeper and more thoughtful mystery that readers of P.D. James or Martha Grimes would appreciate.