A Death at the University – Richard King

I am very surprised that I actually finished this book. Really very surprised. It was the worst sort of cozy mystery, the sort which takes the tv series “Castle” as its template without the shaky foundation that show has. Writer Rick Castle has a thriving career as a mystery writer, friends in high places, and skills that make him very useful in crime-solving – plus a metric ton of charm that helps him brazen out any objections to his continuing presence where he really has no business being.

The hero and first-person narrator of this series, Sam Wiseman, has none of that. Sam Wiseman has a tenuous career as co-owner of a bookshop, friends in middling and low places, and skills at locating books for his customers based on little information which he fondly believes make him useful in crime-fighting. Charm? He might have a rabbit’s foot on his keychain, but that’s the most charm this guy has.

This is probably going to be a long review, but I’m going to make it even longer by addressing this first. I have probably mentioned before that I worked at Barnes and Noble for a while. In that time I saw a remarkable number of requests that went “I don’t know the author, I don’t know the title, but…” I remember “there was a horse on the cover” and “the cover was blue”, and of course the lady who had bits of information (but no author or title) based on an NPR segment she had heard. My favorite ever was the woman who came up to us and said “I’m looking for a book on French Provincial decorating – I don’t know the author, and I don’t know the title, but this” – and here she whipped a swatch of fabric out of her pocket – “is on the endpapers.” Out of all of those I believe the only one that was locatable was the one mentioned on NPR, because I happened to have read a review of the same book. What this all means is that people are idiots. (Really? It’s blue? You don’t deserve a book. Go home and watch The Bachelor.) And it also means that attempting to figure out meager clues to locate a book a) doesn’t always work, and b) does not make for a Sherlock Holmes. It really doesn’t.

What it also means is that Sam Wiseman is a jackass.

It is a truth universally recognized that when I make a lot of highlights and notes in a Kindle book, it must be either very good or very bad. I made 58 notes and 87 highlights – most of which go to prove his sheer jackassery.

In an effort to make their store stand above the chain bookstores, the shop Wiseman co-owns offers delivery to its customers. And one of the customers who takes advantage of the service is Professor Harold Hilliard from the local university. Wiseman – reluctantly, as he seems to do everything connected with the bookstore – pays a visit to the prof’s office one morning to collect payment for books he had received, and he finds Hilliard lying dead on the floor, bludgeoned with a bust of Hegel. Wiseman’s initial reaction is acceptable – he is horrified. Everything after that is appalling.

You see, he had befriended a police detective in the shop some time back, and now – joy of joys! – he gets to fulfill his childhood fantasies and inject himself into the investigation. He is “thrilled”. He literally begins to fantasize about having the chance to make a dramatic Poirot-esque speech at the end.

Wiseman (I don’t like to call him Sam, because that shatters my “never met a Sam I didn’t like” rule; I don’t like to call him Wiseman, either, because one of my favorite fictional characters was named Wiseman. But it’s the lesser of two evils) simply proves himself over and over (AND over) to be a pimple on the backside of the universe. On one page he talks about how he had become friendly with Professor Hilliard, in fact considered him a friend – but literally minutes after finding the man very bloodily dead he is all but doing the dance of joy at the idea that he might be able to force the detective to let him tag along. He praises himself constantly for his extensive knowledge of criminal investigation (gleaned entirely from detective novels and television), yet admits – to himself and the reader, but not anyone else – that the only thing that kept him from “stepping into Hilliard’s office and messing up the crime scene” was the shock of the moment. He is the first on the scene, the one who discovers the body (traditionally the prime suspect in mystery novels), and the victim is clutching in his hand an invoice from Wiseman’s store, and then he forces himself into involvement with the investigation in classic serial killer fashion – but: “It never occurred to me that I would be a suspect”. Someone tries to explain the possibility of getting a partial print off a cable to Wiseman. He has no idea what they’re talking about. I’m still trying to figure out what he didn’t understand. Fingerprints are Master Detective 101, the remedial class.

Oh, and it was simply charming that Wiseman deems it no longer necessary to refer to the dead man as “Professor Hilliard”; apparently violent death opens the door to familiarity, because he begins to refer to him as “Harold”. When he refers to the dead man’s workplace as “my friend Harold’s office”, followed very soon by a gleeful statement of how much fun he was having, I wanted my own bust of Hegel.

‘And I’m enjoying it. That’s horrible, isn’t it? To enjoy something associated with someone’s death?’
‘You’re only human. Why shouldn’t you enjoy it? You didn’t kill the guy.’

Why not enjoy it? Why not enjoy it? Let me ‘splain. No, no – it would take too long. Let me sum up: Because it’s disgusting.

To be fair, the callousness toward the victim is not isolated to Wiseman; the man’s secretary – who had more than a business relationship with him – is seen to be flirting heavily with the university security guard within an hour or two of the discovery of the corpse.

Perhaps it is the stupidity of the main character which can be blamed for the sheer idiocy with which the whole computer aspect of the plot is handled. You see, Professor Hilliard’s laptop is missing. So of course Wiseman takes it upon himself to – in the grand (stupid) tradition of the amateur detective – go off on a (totally pointless) tangent and investigate a black market ring. Now, in a world where the default for a computer is still “any color as long as it’s black”, Hilliard’s was a white Toshiba. It is very explicitly stated that it is white. Does Wiseman look for a white laptop, which should stand out? He does not. He trips over someone in a coffee shop – and *gasp* that person has a laptop! (In a coffee shop! That is so unusual!) Maybe he’s already found the missing computer! Is this because it’s a somewhat unusual white laptop? I don’t know – the color of this one is never mentioned. Is it a Toshiba? Who knows? Is it the missing one? Nope. (Is Wiseman an idiot? Yep.) I’ll come back to computers.

This isn’t the extent of his jackassery, not by a long mark. Because of course he’s ever so attractive, and he finds himself hit on by oh-so-many girls in the bookstore. So of course he behaves like an utter gentleman – except for the frequent occasions when he doesn’t. “On the other hand, I’m only human. And male. It’s sometimes very hard work resisting their blandishments.” He has let one girl pick him up and come to believe she has a relationship with him, but he keeps – accidentally on purpose – forgetting all about her, as well as his own partner. On the day of the murder he “forgets” to call his partner, much less go back to work, for hours, leaving the store short-handed. He leaves the “girlfriend” hanging. When they finally get together at a coffee shop, he is oblivious to the fact that she obviously needs to tell him something, because he is too busy eavesdropping on people at the next table – and in fact tells her to “Shush!” at one point because she dares to try to talk to him. (My guess is that she’s pregnant; I guess I’ll never know, because it didn’t come out in this book.) If she hadn’t walked out on him right then I would have rage-quit. I’m almost sorry she did walk out, because that meant I weakly kept reading.

Is the author TRYING to make him impossible to like?

But it gets even better.

Wait for it.

Ready?

“I may have been insensitive to Susan by ignoring her, but I was angry that she had just taken off.”

To put the cherry on top of this aspect of Wiseman’s jackassery, within a day or two of letting the girl who thought she was his girlfriend walk away in fury, he’s propositioning another woman (in an extraordinarily creepy manner).

As if I needed further proof that this moron is indeed a moron, a note is discovered which apparently refers to a Shakespeare play. Obviously, since the note was hidden, it must be important to their case, and Wiseman is assigned the onerous task of reading the play in question to see what it could mean. Only Wiseman is worried that he might not be able to read the play in one night.

It’s a play.

Stripped down, it’s about two hundred pages, not exactly tightly packed with text. Dialogue, you know. Poetry.

And if one’s reading skills are deficient to the task (which would be kind of odd in, you know, a bookseller), it’s A SHAKESPEARE PLAY. And we’re not talking Pericles here. There have to be a good half dozen versions of the full play on YouTube (more right now because the 450th anniversary of Will’s death is nigh); there are dozens available if you’re willing to pay a couple of dollars for a download. It’s not like a kid trying to avoid reading Jane Eyre by watching the movie – unless it’s a notoriously bad version, it’s gonna be the whole thing. An Audible version is about three and a half hours. It takes longer to read something aloud than to read silently.

And then when the relevant scene came along, it took everyone in the book an embarrassingly long time to reach the conclusion I drew immediately. They’re even given a huge honking clue. And then a character mentions a key under a mat several times. She calls it an analogy. It’s not. It’s actually literal.

Hegel, the murder weapon

So Wiseman keeps playing hooky from his actual job, but to excuse his absences tells his partner everything. Even the things he promises he will never tell anyone, ever. (“‘… Assuming that our conversation today was private.’ She gave me a hostile look. Gaston spoke for both of us. ‘You can depend on our discretion.'” No, you can’t. As proof, I submit: “I brought her up to date, leaving out no detail”. Appalling. I’m pretty sure he told the girlfriend everything too (while she was still around), and probably his entire family as well.) What’s kind of funny about it all, though is that when the cop shows up at the store a couple of days in, Wiseman’s partner exclaims “‘Is it really true? Are you actually involved in a murder investigation?'” Which kind of speaks to his general trustworthiness.

And Gaston, this magnificent cop with whom Wiseman bonds, whom he follows around like a puppy? Really doesn’t come off as any more clever than his idiot amateur protégé. The office where Professor Hilliard was found was a complete mess, with books torn from their shelves and scattered all over the floor – and on top of the body. Yet this brilliant detective seems to have to keep confirming for himself that or someone (the murderer??) tossed the office looking for something. (Either that, or the killer went to Hilliard’s apartment and tidied everything up, because it’s highly organized.)

Oh, and what was it that someone was looking for when they pulled all the books off their shelves? Our so-brilliant twosome wonder if it might have been the laptop.

Not a tablet. A laptop. Tell me exactly how that could be hidden on a bookshelf without it being screamingly obvious. Please.

In addition to wondering whether the author has ever worked retail, I was left wondering whether he has ever actually used a computer. With all of the nonsense about the missing laptop I’ve already complained about, the book sounds like it was written in, or at least set in, 1995, when computers were still new and mysterious. Example: I could be wrong, but I sincerely doubt an apparently standard laptop would survive being hidden in the way Professor Hilliard’s is, apparently without a scratch. More inexplicably, though, Gaston is as baffled by the machine as he would be if handed the controls of the TARDIS. You need a password to get in? How odd. (No, it’s not; my personal laptop is password protected, because that was the default security setting and I just never changed it.) When they finally blast their way into the Professor’s emails, it falls apart even more… In, what – fifteen years? of sending and receiving emails at home and at work, I have never seen nor heard of anything happening remotely like what is described here. Ever. And all of the fuss over the email concerned – possibly the motive for the murder – is based on the assumption that the thing can only be read on the computer from which it was sent or the computer on which it was originally read. I … but … that’s not how email works. Also, they talk about the possibility of erasing parts of a received email. I say again: that’s not how email works. All of this is to create a digital equivalent to the hackneyed *CLUE* found by so many classic mystery detectives, the note burned or torn to leave only strategic phrases which, of course, makes everyone jump to the wrong conclusion before leading to any kind of solution.

The very first highlight I made was on this line: “I don’t know why but shoplifters tend to fall apart as soon as they’re caught. They just give up.” Has the author ever actually worked in a retail environment? Because I spent the first ten years of my working life in pharmacies and book stores, and in generally very good sections of town, and I never saw a shoplifter “just give up”. I saw them run for it; I saw them fight tooth and nail; I saw one threaten to bite the store manager, with the warning that he had AIDS. Which could be considered “falling apart”, in a way, but certainly not giving up.

The book is set in Montreal, a city infamous for a certain intolerance for those who do not speak French. (That’s not personal experience, but family legend; there’s a sort of fragrance of Hatfield/McCoy between Quebec and my mother’s home province of Newfoundland.) The author decides to carry that over to this book by declining to translate several passages of French. Dorothy L. Sayers did the same, with French and a handful of other languages. But when Sayers did it it was because her main character was brilliant, and could ably, easily toss around quotes in various languages. King is no Sayers. And God knows Wiseman is no (breathe in, breathe out) Lord Peter. (Because, you see, those two should not be mentioned in the same breath.) In Sayers it’s impressive, and demonstrates a certain expectation for her reader to keep up. In King it’s just obnoxious.

And here’s something I wonder if the main character – or the author – ever considered: Mr. Not-so-Wiseman helps run a bookstore, when he feels like it. He is supposed to be in the store quite a bit, selling books so that they can pay the bills and, you know, buy more books. This murder takes place at a school located very near the store, meaning that a great many of the faculty and students are customers. Those same faculty and students whom he thinks nothing of antagonizing in the course of “investigating” this case. I can say that if I frequented a bookstore and the owner of said bookstore made as big an asshat of himself as Wiseman does in this, I would never. Ever. Go. Back. To that store. Barnes & Noble here I’d come. Oh, or you know what? Amazon delivers too.

The only thing this book had going for it was an actual ability to put words together into coherent and adequately readable sentences. If only the sentences were worth reading. Here’s a nice relevant passage. Let’s hope the author keeps this in mind:

‘Why would Ron want to kill him?’ asked Sally.
‘Because Hal was about to publish a shitty review of Ron’s book,’ Mac answered.
‘You don’t kill someone over a bad review,’ Sally protested.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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