The trouble with good academic satires is that they are too much like reality. This one is an excellent academic satire, and a mystery to boot.
Department of Death is the latest and best of Lev Raphael’s literate mysteries featuring Edith Wharton scholar Nick Hoffman at Michigan State, subtly renamed and disguised as the State University of Michigan (SUM). The story is indeed very close to reality. A year and a half ago I wrote this in a review of Raphael’s preceding novel in the same series:
[T]here’s a splash of Jewish culture and history, more than a splash of LGBTQ issues, and a heavy dose of the realities of life as a university professor. You don’t have to have read the earlier books in the series: the author carefully—perhaps too carefully—clues the reader into anything relevant from them.
All of that applies to Department of Death as well. The plot keeps you reading, most of the characters are engaging, and the settings are vivid. There are, however, a couple of flaws—or apparent flaws. The principal one is that it’s obvious from the second chapter who the murder victim and murderer will be.
Obvious, maybe, but don’t leap to conclusions. You’ll be wrong about the identities of both the victim and the murderer.
The second flaw is that there are a bit too many loose ends—though maybe those are really just cliffhangers so that you’ll buy the next book in the series. Will Nick accept the summer job in Sweden? Was he really followed to and in Ludington? What’s up with the German twins? And what about Naomi?
Some of the satire is pointed, some painted with a broad brush. It’s almost all written with a keen sense of humor (though I just couldn’t take the alt-right white supremacism from the twins at the end). I’m still having some trouble reconciling the midwestern sensibility of SUM with what ought to be a New York sensibility, perhaps being unable to forget what a former boss told me back in the ’70s: “An Italian priest from New York is more Jewish than a rabbi from Minnesota.” Not quite true—and Michigan isn’t Minnesota—but the idea still rattles around my brain.