The Edith Wharton Murders (Nick Hoffman Mysteries Book 2) Kindle Edition
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“The Edith Wharton Murders” is the second of eight Nick Hoffman books, and takes place in the fictionalized Michigan university town where Nick is a writing professor and Stephan is the writer in residence. There are sly little joking references to Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher in the story, but there is also a strong overlay of the English writer David Lodge, whose best known novels revolve around the internecine politics of university life in the UK.
Surely there is a conscious reflection of Raphael’s own life in academe here, but his portrayal of the absurdity and tragic pettiness of the world of Edith Wharton scholars (an author whose work I personally love, to a point) is delicious. As Nick desperately tries to control the Wharton conference he has been forced to organize, and as he continues to manage the hurt he feels from Stephan’s emotional betrayal in the previous (first) book, we feel alternating waves of sympathy, disbelief and comic giddiness as the entire procedure begins to spin off its axis.
And, as I said, at the hub of this swirl of personalities and college life, are these two men, in their mid-thirties, settled, happy in their life together in spite of the inevitable pain and hurt that longtime relationships often embrace. There is no overt sex in this book, and there doesn’t need to be. There is nothing in this book to make the straight world queasy-except, of course, the sharp focus on the gay men themselves. This intense visibility, Nick and Stephan’s motivating force at the core of this novel, is probably enough to ensure that a large part of the mystery-reading audience won’t touch it. For all the advances in politics in the world – right up to universal recognition of same-gender marriage this year – our visibility still makes the other 95% squirm.
So, for all their charm and their readability, Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman books are important to me for this reason. How lucky I am that they’re so good.
Nick is drawn into the various murders that occur on his surprisingly violent upper midwestern campus in spite of himself but with uncomfortable enthusiasm that bemuses the detective actually in charge of the cases, the stolid Inspector Valley. My favorite moment in this novel is when Valley discovers Nick having trespassed onto the terrain of the investigation by breaking and entering the house of a suspect. Nick hears the noises that let him know someone else has entered the house ("No. I hear footsteps."); he swivels in his chair "terrified" but determined to confront the interloper directly no matter what the danger (Nick wants to have the courage of his convictions even if he cannot always manage it). But there "Detective Valley appeared in the doorway, shaking his head."
Raphael has a perfect sense of timing here and captures the comic deflation of the scene with the same unerring instinct he also brings to the novel's often witty and sophisticated dialogue.
The books are not perfect. Sometimes the plots become too wildly implausible, and I wouldn't be truthful if I said the quality of the dialogue was at a uniformly high standard. But for the most part Lev Raphael really does get it right, and he has created a very memorable and likeable series detective.
As a former Michigander, I also enjoyed the parody of the climate and culture of one of our country's virtually unknown backwaters.
This is a delightful read: poisonously funny, true to the setting, and obviously written by one who knows this world from the inside. I read it during a particularly stressful time, and it was a great escape. Thank goodness it's a series, as I was sorry when it ended.