The Lake of Dead Languages

I recently listened to the audiobook version of The Lake of Dead Languages, a fascinating novel by Carol Goodman. Well, actually, I don’t know how fascinating it would be to the general reader, but it resonated for me in so many ways: the protagonist is a Latin teacher, it takes place in upstate New York, and almost every scene is set in a boarding school, which itself could be considered a character in the book.

One reviewer on Amazon wrote, “One might even call it a literate mystery,” but that sounds to me like damning with faint praise. The implied criticism is undeserved. The Lake of Dead Languages is indeed literate and is in some sense a mystery, but it doesn’t follow the conventions of the mystery genre. (Some reviewers say that it follows the conventions of the gothic genre, but I have no way of knowing whether they are correct.) The action, somewhat confusingly, includes a lot of flashbacks to the protagonist’s time as a student at the school where she now teaches. Perhaps those flashbacks would be clearer in the print version — maybe they’re marked in some visual way — but in the audiobook the listener is suddenly jarred to be transported back to the past without warning, especially when some of the characters appear in both settings, and Latin features prominently in both. Or maybe the confusion is intentional, since this is definitely one of many novels where the past is clearly prologue to the future.

The mystery aspect is clearly subservient to the character development and the setting. Nevertheless, the solution is startling and satisfactory; I, for one, didn’t see it coming.

I don’t want to say any more, for fear of providing inadvertent spoilers. But do read it if this description sounds intriguing. Don’t read it if a mystery is what you’re looking for.

Categories: Books