This book starts off with the death of a university administrator at a retirement party. A retirement party for a staff member who isn’t there. Not physically, anyway–James Crawford is the guest of honor, but he is monitoring the events remotely. As an IT manager, he is able to watch as his boss abruptly collapses just as he is about to give a speech.

The late boss, Sean Thomas, is not exactly missed by his former subordinates. The title of the book refers to him, and this sentiment is shared widely by the staff. Nevertheless, no matter how much he may have deserved it, there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding his death, and when his chief lackey also turns up dead, the provost recruits Crawford to investigate.

Crawford is a likable protagonist; a southern gentleman who takes his time about things, and muses his theories on the case to his dog, Tan, and cat, delightfully called “The Black.” Usually, he does this while preparing a meal, which is described in mouth-watering detail. Sometimes, he meets with his colleagues Stan and Bobby to discuss things, and more than once, the gruff but goodhearted police officer assists him in solving the case.

The book is slow-paced, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It captures the feel of a Southern college campus perfectly, right down to how life in the university town has to be carefully planned around whether the collegiate football team is playing at home that week.

While I enjoyed the denouement, I will say that I pretty much guessed how the mystery would be resolved long before it ended. But that’s okay. This book is more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fun one. More than a mystery, it’s really about getting to know the character of Crawford, and his reflections on life at the university.

The book even has a theme: centralization and power. This can be seen everywhere from the late Dr. Thomas’s management of the media center, which ends up being critical to the plot, to a minor detail like Crawford’s description of a popular football commentator:

“A couple of years ago, the radio station he’d been on had been bought up by one of those conglomerates that try to homogenize the stations so they all sound the same, from coast to coast. I guess the idea is eliminate any but essential staff, but that kills the local color as well.”

The university’s buying up of the surrounding properties to create a carefully-manicured off-campus “shopping experience” is another example of this. For me, the real fun of the book is hearing Crawford’s sometimes cynical, sometimes sentimental views on the place where he has spent his career.

Another striking thing about the book is the way it shows the university from the perspective of administrators. Students hardly register except as obstacles to be avoided on the drive in. Classes are scarcely mentioned; the world of college administration is a world unto itself.

While the mystery of Thomas’s death gets cleared up, the book ends on a cliffhanger introducing another mystery for Crawford to solve. I’m looking forward to the second book, and recommend this one to anybody who enjoys a nice, leisurely mystery.

Recently, during a chat with the Writers Supporting Writers group, I was talking about Lindy Moone’s novel Hyperlink From Hell. I asserted that as far as I knew, that was the only published work by this author.

Well, clearly I don’t know very much. I thought I remembered looking for other works after reading Hyperlink. And yet, when I looked up Moone’s works recently, I saw this short story, published in 2014. I could have sworn it wasn’t there before, but perhaps I am mad, quite mad. (But at least I don’t sing choruses in public, yet.) Anyway, if you haven’t already pegged me as having all the reliability of an average Lovecraft protagonist, maybe you should start now.

But one point on which I want to be crystal clear is that this story is excellent.  It’s a short story, very short; but the setting is so evocative it instantly captured me. The mysterious town of Fogland, full of odd things and odd people, and one raven with a “screech impediment.” This is the second book I’ve read this year involving a mysterious raven who brings warnings to unsuspecting characters. It’s a trope that always works.

In addition to the bird, we have a newlywed French couple moving to their new home in Fogland, a shady realtor, and an impertinent little girl. How does it all fit together? Well, I’m not telling. Besides, you wouldn’t believe me. I’ve already led you astray once regarding the very existence of books by Lindy Moone.  Why don’t you instead go pick it up and read it yourself? It will only a take a few minutes, and fans of short fiction and weird stories with twist endings (think The Twilight Zone) are sure to like it. Besides, the cover is simply gorgeous!

This is a science fiction adventure story, but not the sort that Vogel usually writes. Most of his books, such as his Scout series, feature upstanding, chivalrous heroes on noble adventures. Fortune’s Fool is different. It’s darker and grittier, and less romantic. (In the literary sense.) Whereas most of Vogel’s protagonists are honorable, duty-bound types, Mark Fortune is more of an anti-hero. Think James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery, or Han Solo early on, before his mercenary heart softens.

Actually, the first Star Wars is a good comparison for this book in more ways than one. In addition to a ragtag band including a scoundrel, his powerful, lumbering sidekick, and a beautiful woman with an acerbic wit, there’s a huge floating fortress they need to destroy.

The book is fast-paced and violent. There’s a lot of banter in combat, which is not necessarily something I’m a fan of, although I will admit some of the lines made me chuckle. Sometimes the action moves so fast, it was hard to keep track of where it was all taking place. But it was certainly intense and exciting. I especially enjoyed Fortune’s reliance on an archaic firearm instead of an energy blaster.

In broad outlines, it’s not too different from a Scout book: hero finds himself on a strange world, and must fight to survive and save a beautiful woman. But the devil is in the details. One can’t imagine the hero of a Scout book speaking to a princess the way Fortune speaks to Alis. Moreover, Fortune is quite ruthless and definitely not one to fight fair, although there are signs that he’s not quite as brutal as he would like people to believe.

Then of course there are the villains, who are an altogether nasty bunch of folks. The main antagonist, Maelon, definitely deserves to have someone like Fortune opposing him.

All told, it’s a fast-paced and exciting story. I enjoyed it for the most part, although there’s no denying some parts were quite dark. Vogel was well aware this book is a departure from his usual style, so much so that it was initially published under a pen name. I can understand this, as it would be a shock for fans of his lighter works to find themselves in this world of cruelty, cynicism, and a good many four-letter words. But as long as you’re prepared for that, Fortune’s Fool is a good read.

This is the third and final book in the Cassie Black series. If you’ll recall my review of Book Two, I didn’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling Book One. And so now, I face the same problem doubled, because to describe the setting of this book risks spoiling the first two.

Hmm, what to do? Well, I think I’ll start by talking about an element of these books that I neglected previously: the food. To power her magical abilities, Cassie needs lots of sweets, and eats a steady diet of delicious foods throughout the series. I love Painter’s descriptions of her meals. In fact, the one that sounded best of all to me was a description of a salad in this book. Reading this series is sure to whet your appetite.

As for the rest of it? Well, Cassie is snarky as ever, and her sarcastic voice stays with her even into her final confrontation with the arch-villain. The supporting characters are once again enjoyable, and I was especially pleased with how the character arc of the ghostly Tower Warder Nigel turned out.

All told, this is a fun series for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures that don’t take themselves too seriously. Painter’s magical world is entertaining and populated with plenty of amusing characters. The Untangled Cassie Black is a fitting way to wrap it up.

This is a re-telling of the Ancient Greek myth of Perseus, son of the God Zeus, and his quest to slay Medusa. It’s told in a light, witty style, which readers of Pastore’s first novel, The Devil and the Wolfwill certainly enjoy.

Along the way, Perseus meets with various other of the Ancient Greek gods, including Hermes and Athena, and more than a few monsters. And as befits a hero’s journey, he grows from an unsure, often impulsive boy into a brave and wise hero.

I knew next to nothing about the myth of Perseus when I read this book. After finishing it, I looked it up, and in fact, Pastore has hewed fairly closely to the myth. He explains in his afterword that, while many modern re-tellings change things up, i.e. making the confrontations with the monsters more “Hollywood,” (my word, not his) he wanted to be faithful to the source material.

But while he does a fine job at following the ancient story’s plot, there’s still no question it’s a Pastore book, through and through. Fans of The Devil and the Wolf will hear the echoes of Meph and JR in Perseus’s banter with the gods, and the ending, while true to the original myth, has a poetic irony to it that is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the book. If you don’t already know the myth of Perseus, then please don’t look it up before reading this. My ignorance of it made the ending that much better.

But even if you are an expert on Greek mythology, you should still read this. Pastore’s treatment of the story is witty and humorous. It fits perfectly with the overall sensibility of the myth.

I heard of this book thanks to Joy V. Spicer’s review of it. Naturally, since I’m always interested in neo-Lovecraftianism, I picked it up.

The book takes place in 1984, when the narrator stumbles upon a bloody backpack belonging to someone named Jared Palmer at a strange site in a remote part of the desert. He hires a private investigator to help him find Palmer and unravel the mystery.

However, their investigations only lead to more questions: Palmer is apparently mixed-up with a strange cult that practices odd rituals, and which apparently attaches some significance to the protagonist, due to the fact he is related to a certain famous author. (Not named, but there’s no doubt who it is.)

Things get weirder and weirder. The activities of the cult prove to be far more widespread and sinister than initially imagined. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, and double- and triple-crosses. Above all, there is the possibility, as always in your really top-flight Lovecraft tales, that our protagonist is an unreliable narrator.

Basically, the book is pure Lovecraftian horror. Even the writing style evokes HPL’s. At times, it out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft, if that is in fact possible.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, except that I was a satisfied customer–I came in looking for some good old-fashioned cosmic horror, and I got what I wanted.

That’s pretty much my review. If you like Lovecraft, you’ll like this.

Now, there’s one other comment I have. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but I hope not too much. Feel free to skip it if you want to maximize your surprise when reading the book.

As some readers may recall, I recently reviewed the film Wonder Woman 1984. There’s a scene in it where one of the characters meets the President–never named in the film, but obviously resembling Reagan–who reveals the existence of a secret satellite network capable of broadcasting across the globe.

In this book, there’s a scene where a character meets the President–again, not named, but it’s obvious who he is, not only because it’s 1984, but because of his manner and his fondness for jelly beans. And a top-secret satellite broadcasting network is integral to the plot of this book, also!

Apart from these details, Wonder Woman 1984 and Book of the Elder Wisdom are nothing alike. (For the record: Book of the Elder Wisdom was published in August 2020, WW84 premiered in December 2020.) But these commonalities were interesting to me. Why? Well, I’m not sure. I feel like it says something about the zeitgeist, the millieu, the cultural moment, and any other pretentious five-dollar terms you can think of that mean “what was happening at the time.”

But I don’t know what it is. I can’t even begin to speculate about what it is.

Ah, well. Like the fella once said, “The most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  Who knows if there is any connection to be drawn at all, or if it’s just some odd coincidence. In any case: Book of the Elder Wisdom is a fun cosmic horror yarn.

Lovecraft! Few names are as loaded as his. The weight it carries, the emotions it evokes–what power this strange, little-known-in-his-time pulp writer has assumed!

Most of the time, when I talk about Lovecraft on this blog, it’s to criticize him. And there’s a lot to criticize. I’ve written about this before. But Lovecraft has this way about him: just when you’re ready to dismiss him, you remember some piece of his work that’s so interesting you can’t just write him off altogether.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: his 1935 short story “The Haunter of the Dark.”

“The Haunter of the Dark” tells the story of a young writer named Robert Blake who moves to Providence, Rhode Island. Blake is fascinated by the occult, and soon becomes obsessed with a huge church on a hill far across the city, that he is compelled to stare at for hours from the window of his apartment.

Eventually, he visits the church, where he finds the remains of a reporter who apparently died while investigating the activities of a mysterious religious order called “The Church of Starry Wisdom.” He also finds a strange object in the abandoned church, and immediately upon seeing it, feels an evil presence.

This evil presence–some manner of alien entity, left vague in classic Lovecraftian fashion–can move only in darkness. But when a thunderstorm knocks out power to the city one night, Blake feels sure he is marked for death by the creature that lives in the church tower.

It’s not a long story. It can easily be read in one sitting. And for the seasoned HPL veteran there’s not a lot of new ground here: there’s a legend haunted New England town, a weirdly antiquarian protagonist, a nameless alien horror–this is all familiar. But there are nonetheless some things I find noteworthy about this particular story.

The first is, I admit, purely subjective. “The Haunter of the Dark” is my favorite Lovecraft story. Can I point to anything to say that it’s clearly better than some of his other really good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Hound”? Not really. I could probably make an argument for why it’s better than many of his most famous stories, including “The Call of Cthulhu.” But nevertheless, this is purely a matter of personal taste.

Or is it?

Well… maybe there are some other, non-subjective reasons why I can say that “The Haunter of the Dark” is the apex of Lovecraftian horror. Or maybe not, and what I think is objective is just more subtly subjective. But there must be some reason why this story stands out to me above all the others, right?

Well, let’s dig into the evidence–but all the while, bearing in mind the guarded distrust of the narrator that is the hallmark of any Lovecraft tale. After all, “the papers have given the tangible details from a sceptical angle, leaving for others the drawing of the picture as Robert Blake saw it—or thought he saw it—or pretended to see it.”

That’s as good a place as any to start. So, who is Robert Blake?

In one sense, he’s a stereotypical Lovecraft protagonist. He’s an eccentric weirdo who lives alone and is fascinated by the bizarre and the esoteric, and has seemingly no life outside his dedication to these subjects. Almost everyone in Lovecraft-world is like this.

But there’s more to the story: Robert Blake is a surrogate for Robert Bloch, a correspondent of Lovecraft’s, to whom “The Haunter of the Dark” is dedicated.

All right, so who was Robert Bloch?

Well, eventually, he would go on to be a fairly popular horror writer himself. But in the 1930s, he was basically nobody; just a teenager who read Weird Tales magazine and had written fan mail to Lovecraft.

And Lovecraft wrote back. He encouraged the young Bloch in his own writing efforts, giving him advice and introducing him to other members of his literary circle. Lovecraft even gave Bloch permission to write a story in which a Lovecraft-surrogate was killed off. “The Haunter of the Dark” was HPL’s reciprocation of this gesture.

Now, of course in the 1930s, Lovecraft was not as well-known as he is today. But still, imagine what a thrill it must have been for teenager Robert Bloch to become so close (closeness being evaluated on a relative scale when it comes to Lovecraft) to someone he perceived as a great author.

“The Haunter of the Dark” is, among other things, a reader’s dream come true. What if your favorite author put you in one of their stories? Lovecraft even included Bloch’s actual address in Wisconsin! (Which today would be considered doxxing, but hey, it was a different time.)

Lovecraft often referenced his literary friends’ works in other stories as a sort of in-joke, but to write a whole story around someone who wasn’t really even a peer, but just a young fan, is pretty extraordinary.

But that’s not all that makes “Haunter of the Dark” special. In fact, usually fan service in fiction ends up being detrimental to the overall story, and to see why that is not the case here, we have to look at what Lovecraft did in designing the story’s antagonist. For this, Lovecraft plays on humanity’s most basic phobia: the fear of the dark.

Lovecraft rarely created rules for his monsters. He didn’t use vampires who only come out at night, werewolves who appear only when the moon is full, etc. Largely, this was because it was important to him that his alien monsters be utterly inscrutable to humans–beings whose motivations, if any, lay so outside our own domain as to be unfathomable.

And this is still true for the thing which haunts the deserted church on Federal Hill. But Lovecraft does give this monster one very basic, almost childishly obvious rule: it can’t go out in the light.

It sounds almost too simplistic. This is the kind of thing you’d make up in telling a campfire story about a generic boogeyman. But damme, it works! The climax of the story, with Blake watching in mounting terror during the huge electrical storm, is, in my opinion, the best thing Lovecraft ever wrote:

He had to keep the house dark in order to see out of the window, and it appears that most of his time was spent at his desk, peering anxiously through the rain across the glistening miles of downtown roofs at the constellation of distant lights marking Federal Hill. Now and then he would fumblingly make an entry in his diary, so that detached phrases such as “The lights must not go”; “It knows where I am”; “I must destroy it”; and “it is calling to me, but perhaps it means no injury this time”; are found scattered down two of the pages.

Then the lights went out all over the city. It happened at 2.12 A.M. according to power-house records, but Blake’s diary gives no indication of the time. The entry is merely, “Lights out—God help me.”

Lovecraft had a fair amount of disdain for classic ghost stories. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he wrote:

This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

But with “Haunter of the Dark” Lovecraft hit a terrific balance between his own incomprehensible creatures of inconceivably distant worlds and the most basic elements of an old-fashioned scary story. In almost all his stories, Lovecraft undercuts the atmosphere somehow, but this time, he kept a steady hand.

And to me, what makes this especially remarkable–poignant, even–is that it’s Lovecraft’s final story. He died in 1937, shortly after “Haunter of the Dark” was published in Weird Tales, and I think he had a sense that the end was near when he was writing it. It feels valedictory, from the way he quotes his own poem Nemesis as an epigraph, to the fact that he dedicated it to a younger protegé as a way of passing the torch, right down to its final lines. Admittedly, having a story end with the protagonist’s last words before death is a Lovecraft staple, but

I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wing—Yog Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye . . .

…was the last thing he wrote for publication, and this seems intuitively fitting. H.P. Lovecraft could not go out any other way.

This is why “The Haunter of the Dark” is always worth revisiting, especially at this time of year–“the aeon-shadowed Walpurgis time,” as Lovecraft would say. It encapsulates so much about Lovecraft–his unique philosophy of horror, the evocation of the eerie atmosphere he sought to create, and perhaps above all else, his skill at cultivating relationships with other weird fiction aficionados.

Murder on Eridanos starts off with a bang. Aetherwave serial star Halcyon Helen is murdered at the Grand Colonial Hotel, just before she was due to unveil Rizzo’s new drink, Spectrum Brown. Naturally, the player character is hired to investigate the murder.

The gameplay is familiar to anyone who has played vanilla Outer Worlds, although there is the wonderful addition of the Discrepancy Amplifier–an AI magnifying glass that picks up on unusual items, footprints etc. to aid the player in finding clues.

Also, one of my few gripes about the first DLC, Peril on Gorgon, has been addressed here: the new weapons are better and more distinctive. The player even gets a chance to wield Helen’s iconic pistol, the Needler, which I’d been dying to do since seeing it in this in-game poster:

Speaking of Halycon Helen, she’s a great character, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed that the game starts with her being killed off, before we even have a chance to meet her. No spoilers, but in the end it made sense.

Ah, well, okay–I am going to give a little bit of a spoiler. It’s not giving everything away, but you might want to skip it if you like to be surprised. My only criticism of this DLC is that its formula is about the same as Peril on Gorgon‘s: player is hired to investigate something, then the party which hired the player is revealed to have hidden ulterior motives.

However, the overall story was different enough that it worked. I liked Murder on Eridanos much better than Peril on Gorgon. (And to be clear, I liked Peril on Gorgon a lot!) This is saying something, because there are few faster ways to turn me off a work of fiction than by having it start off with a woman being murdered. It’s such an old trope, but Obsidian has built up enough goodwill over the years that I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.

Murder on Eridanos does what all DLC should do: reinforces the overarching theme of the main game. In keeping with the rest of The Outer Worlds, it centers around a plot by a corporation to sell harmful products disguised with saccharine marketing. The corporate propaganda art, always an amusing element of the game, reaches new heights in Murder on Eridanos.

Misleading advertising is one of the core themes of Outer Worlds, right down to the loading screens that report the players’ actions from the perspective of the corporations. The whole game is a satire on the dehumanizing effect large organizations have on the individuals they control.

Halcyon Helen is a perfect example of this–as more than one character observes, she is not a person, but a brand. Most characters speak of “Halcyon Helen,” not the actress who plays her, Ruth Bellamy. Helen is a symbol, and the corporations know it.

Murder on Eridanos is a fitting capstone to The Outer Worlds in another respect: it’s a very deliberate homage to the tropes of pulp detective stories. Pulpiness is at the heart of the game’s aesthetic, and a detective investigating the death of a serial star is about as pulp-y as it gets.

I say “capstone” because apparently this will be the last DLC for Outer Worlds. That’s a pity; the game’s potential seems endless. But as this is the end of the line, I’ll use this review to provide a retrospective on the game as a whole.

A while back, I used the term “techno-decadence” to describe a particular type of science fiction. I have to say, it was playing The Outer Worlds that made it crystallize in my mind. The game strives for a retro-futuristic aesthetic in everything, from the Art Deco architecture and graphic design to the state of the in-game entertainment industry, with its deliberate parody of Old Hollywood, right down to the many references to classic sci-fi.

This is, I think, more than just a stylistic choice. The Outer Worlds’ retro vibe speaks to nostalgia, a longing for bygone… dare I say it? Yes, I think so… halcyon days. Even the in-game sport of tossball, with its devoted fans, colorful players and collectible cards is a throwback to the Golden Age of baseball.

That the game happened to be released just after Obsidian Entertainment was acquired by Microsoft makes its themes all the more interesting. While Obsidian was joining the ranks of the consolidated corporate behemoths, it was also producing a sharp critique of modern oligopolies. A rebellion against the modern formulas of gaming, with their endless sequels and multiplayer modes and pay-to-win content models and other general malevolence practiced by the industry’s largest companies.

And the aesthetic is part of the rebellion, I’m convinced of that. Compare the soulless graphics of Call of Duty to the inspired art of Outer Worlds and you’ll see what I mean. The reason The Outer Worlds is beautiful and Call of Duty isn’t is the same reason Call of Duty has an online death-match mode and The Outer Worlds doesn’t: because The Outer Worlds is for aesthetes who want immersion in a new world.

My friends, the central question of gaming is also the question at the heart of modern civilization: do we rule the tech, or does it rule us? More precisely, are these games nothing but elaborate demonstrations of the latest machines, or are they vehicles for telling stories, with which the machines are needed to assist?

After all, a corporation is a kind of machine–a system, in which the individuals it comprises are meant to carry out the purpose of the whole unit. And so we see at the resort on Eridanos a system that is meant to deliver happiness, and therefore mandates happiness to all its employees.

Of course, mandated happiness is not happiness at all. To experience joy, people must also be able to feel sorrow, fear, etc. The human experience is a gestalt of all these things. But that’s not exactly a message that makes people want to go shopping, which is why Rizzo’s goes to some extreme lengths to deliver “happiness.”

I promised not to spoil Murder on Eridanos, and I’ll keep that promise. Just know that these ideas are present if you look for them, and the difference between being human and being a symbol for a corporate initiative are explored in-depth–and all in the context of a terrific game.

The power of games is the power to transport us to simulated worlds. The best of them let us return from these ventures with something new, like the protagonist of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey–a new perspective on reality, achieved by contrasting it with the in-game universe. The Outer Worlds allows the player to do just that, and so I say again what I said back in 2019–not really that long ago, and yet in some ways it feels even further away than the Halcyon cluster–The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.  

The other day I was reading about Booth Tarkington. If you haven’t heard of him–as I hadn’t until just recently–he was a novelist in the early 20th-century. Apparently, he was quite famous in his day, but has since been largely forgotten. Wikipedia informs us:

By the later twentieth century, however, he was ignored in academia: no congresses, no society, no journal of Tarkington Studies. In 1985 he was cited as an example of the great discrepancy possible between an author’s fame when alive and oblivion later. According to this view, if an author succeeds at pleasing his or her contemporaries — and Tarkington’s works have not a whiff of social criticism — he or she is not going to please later readers of inevitably different values and concerns.

Think about that second sentence a while. Chew on it. Do you think this is true? (By the way, although Wikipedia doesn’t say so directly, I’m assuming this is a close paraphrase of the cited text.)

I have recently been part of a discussion, started by Mark Paxson, about whether writing needs to have a point. The overwhelming consensus I’ve heard is, “No, it doesn’t. It just needs to tell a good story.” Anyone who subscribes to the theory Wikipedia describes above is implicitly saying that it does need to have a point.

Who would say this? I’ll tell you who: a critic. Critics are always looking for the point in any work of fiction. I should know, being one myself and constantly trying to tease out the hidden deeper meaning in things.

Critics, according to this theory, are who keep books relevant. The thinking goes, in order to preserve an author’s works as significant, there must be something in it for the critics to evaluate and discuss. Naturally, critics are big proponents of this idea. (I like to imagine all the important literary critics gathering to celebrate their control of authors’ legacies, ideally singing a song similar to this Simpsons classic.)

But the problem is that this theory is blatantly wrong. From what little I’ve read of Tarkington, his writing reminds me of Wodehouse. Wodehouse, whose works contain barely any social criticism and unabashedly take place in some sort of eternal “Edwardian never-never land,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the English language, exactly because his books transport readers to another world.

I suppose one could write a critical academic analysis of Wodehouse, but I think it would just come across as ridiculous. Such was Wodehouse’s mastery of comedy that you cannot even begin to consider his works in a normal, “serious” fashion. Something in their comic spirit defies it.

If you try hard enough, I suppose you can impose intertextual and social commentary on anything. Again, if I haven’t demonstrated this repeatedly on this blog, I don’t know what more I can do. But is that necessary to ensuring an author’s works live on? Somehow I don’t think it is.

Still, there must be some reason I never heard of the guy until now, despite living in the American Midwest, with which his work is (or was) as closely identified as Twain’s is with the Mississippi or Steinbeck’s with California. I wonder what the reason is.

Having a PhD probably sounds pretty glamorous, right? You think of a PhD as a scientist in a lab making amazing discoveries, or maybe, if they’re in humanities or social sciences, as someone sitting comfortably in a nice room full of books, poring over the Great Texts of their field.

Yeah, well; if Campus Confidential is any guide, that’s not quite how it works. The protagonist, Dr. Rowena Halley, can barely manage to scrape by after landing a one-semester job teaching Russian at a university in New Jersey. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Rowena is named after the character in Ivanhoe. And her Marine brother, although he goes by John, is named for the titular character of that novel.)

On top of navigating all the challenges of starting a new job in a strange city, dealing with faculty politics, and the constant nuisances caused by university bureaucracy, Dr. Halley finds herself caught up in trying to help her students, many of whom are still affected by the recent suicide of a popular student in the Russian program.

This suicide is part of the mystery at the heart of the plot. The book is after all a thriller, which involves drug-dealing, mafia, and all sorts of shady goings-on that we would normally never think of associating with an institution of higher learning.

But for all the thriller elements, I don’t think of this book as a mystery in the normal sense. Because the core of the book isn’t just in finding out how the plot unfolds, but in seeing these characters interact in the context of an often hypocritical, almost always absurd university whose administrators espouse noble beliefs, but all too often betray them by their actions.

The real charm of the book is in little details, like the way Dr. Halley has to start teaching classes before her official employment starts, due to some arcane rule of Human Resources, or the way the unctuous Department Chair tries to use a simple conversation with Dr. Halley to ingratiate himself to the Provost. Like Geoffrey Cooper’s novels, this book is not just a good thriller, but a window into the politics of academia.

And then there are the characters. They all feel well-rounded and believable. Even the “villains” are human beings. All of them are revealed to have flaws–sometimes very, very bad flaws–but there are no cardboard cut-outs here. They are all fully-realized people. Even the most minor characters have backstories and personalities.

This is more than just a mystery story; it’s an astutely-observed depiction of modern academic life. I recommend it highly, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.