August 3, 2002

The Whisper of Leaves

Review forthcoming in Drood.

This is the second mystery I've read this summer in which the protagonist is a graduate student, and once again she does things no grad student would.

Josie Darling has nearly finished her dissertation. She's solved a major Joyce riddle. She should be rushing to publication, nailing down her first appointment, preparing her tenure case. Instead, she takes a job as an instructor at a third-tier cow college. Once there, she should throw herself into research (which she neglects entirely) and teaching (to which she pays almost no attention, beyond reading a few student sonnets). In the course of the semester, she apparently reads a single book, spends little or no time reading journals, and writes nothing. When a local newspaper writes that she'd applied for a job as a stripper and the department makes noises about invoking her morality clause, she quakes in her boots. A real-life English instructor, faced with such a clumsy opposition, would have visions of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Camille Paglia and Sandy Stone dancing in her head.

Smith has obviously been around the campus block. He's got some wonderful portraits of students. But, in trying to make his instructor vulnerable, he makes her into an idiot.