17 Feb 2012
“Mysteries wrap things up too much,” a character states to Nick Hoffman, the professor turned detective in “Tropic of Murder,” the sixth novel in the series by Lev Raphael. Hoffman would have found that ironic, since the loose ends of his life haven’t been tied up for several books.
After run-ins with murderous students, professors and administrators at the State University of Michigan, Hoffman finds himself moving from the world of Ph.Ds to PIs as a way to escape the snakepit of academic politics with its internecine backstabbing and hypocrisies. A change of chairmanships and the prospect of introducing a Whiteness Studies program encourages Hoffman and his partner, Stefan, to escape over the Spring break to a Club Med resort in the Caribbean.
But, rest and relaxation turns out to be illusionary. Hoffman hoped to flee a potential client, a graduate student whose politically powerful in-laws may be behind some hate crimes at SUM. But tropical breezes, good food and pampered attention from the Club Med employees is spoiled when Nick finds that no matter how far you run, trouble will follow.
Raphael is an atypical mystery writer. His interests are wide-ranging, with a shelf of literary short stories, non-fiction (including a book on Edith Wharton) and even self-help books to his credit. His recent novel, “The German Money,” drew on his family’s experiences during and after the Holocaust, and themes from his oeuvre show up in his mysteries as well.
“Tropic of Murder” is a series whose full flavor is released by starting with an earlier book that sets the latest plot threads in motion. I recommend No. 5’s “Burning Down the House,” which launches the latest chain of events at SUM, but even better would be to start with “Let’s Get Criminal,” when Hoffman was young, happy, in love, and innocent of the bloody fate in store, and you can take a full measure of pleasure in the loopy events at SUM in its tawdry glory.