Karen Pelletier abandoned her life in New York for a professorship at Massachusetts's elite Enfield College. But she quickly learns that New England is not the peaceful enclave she had imagined--and that not even the privileged world of academia is immune to murder....
Professor Karen Pelletier's prime literary passion is poet Emily Dickinson--a passion she shares with her hotshot colleague Randy Astin-Berger. Heir apparent to the head of Enfield's English department, the pompous Randy is the campus Casanova. That is, he was--until he was found strangled with his own flashy necktie.
The last person to see Randy alive--and the first to find him dead--Karen knows she must solve the case before she becomes the prime suspect. But to do that, she must first discover the truth behind Randy's final Dickinsonian discovery--a literary bombshell that may well have been to die for....
After a semester spent avoiding the advances of a colleague, Karen Pelletier, Emily Dickinson scholar and a new professor at an elite New England college, has the bad luck of finding his body in a closet at the annual Christmas party. Assured by the police that she's not a suspect, she agrees to help the investigating officer unravel the ins and outs of campus life and is on hand when the strangled body of a missing student is discovered. Refusing to believe the second death is mere coincidence, Karen wonders what the two victims had in common. In the midst of these occurrences, Karen, whose daughter is home from college for the holidays, agrees to house a student whose academic goals have angered her possessive, controlling father. Still trying to learn where the lives of the two victims might have intersected, Karen discovers that the professor had discussed his research findings with the dead student. Retracing his steps to Harvard's Houghton Library, she finds out that a letter written long ago by the Belle of Amherst is at the root of recent crimes, a realization that puts her life and others' in mortal danger. Deftly balancing its literary and mystery elements, Dobson's debut sparkles with wit and insight into college politics. Readers academic and otherwise will look forward to the next adventure of smart and scrappy Karen Pelletier. (Oct.)
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August 01, 1998
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Excerpt from Quieter Than Sleep by Joanne Dobson
I might as well admit it: I was sick of desire. Of love, sex, and desire, and all their cumbersome baggage. First of all, I was lugging around the residue of a recently pulverized heart. I should have been used to it by now. It had been six months since I'd left Tony, my longtime lover, to take a teaching job at Enfield College. Well, I couldn't pass up an offer from one of New England's most elite private schools, could I? Well, could I? And Tony didn't want a commuting relationship. He said that was no way to love someone, long distance. So I left. And I was right. Wasn't I? But I couldn't forget him, and I was beginning to wonder if I hadn't, just possibly, made a terrible mistake.
Almost worse than my aching heart, however, was the all-too-close physical presence of Randy Astin-Berger. No, I wasn't in love with Randy. Far from it. Rather, I was in dire peril of being bored to death by his erudite discourse on literature and sexuality. And he kept hitting on me. Standing a good six inches closer to me than I could ever imagine ever wanting him to, Randy was treating me to an extended scholarly analysis of the erotic implications of The Scarlet Letter. No doubt he thought of this as an irresistibly seductive line.
"And, thus," Randy said, as he pushed a lock of lank black hair back from his forehead and then touched me lightly on the shoulder, "inevitably results the narrative disallowal of desire." Light glinted off the gold stud in his left earlobe. "As Foucault would say, the erotic . . ." I was paying very little attention but I did hear him say something about seduction, transgression, obsession, the tyranny of the body. It was enough to put me off sex forever.
I sighed, imperceptibly I hoped. Randy had evidently finished with The Scarlet Letter and had begun obscurely on some other letter and the transgressive nature of desire. He'd been indulging in something more exotic than the liquid offerings at the bar. His eyes glittered. His manner had become confiding and insistent. He began to loosen his tie.
Untenured assistant professors must be vigilantly attentive, and I was doing my damnedest to look fascinated. In spite of his relative youth, Randy had just been named to Enfield College's prestigious Palaver Chair of English. And rumor had it that he was next in line to be department chair. I had to be nice to Randy; he was the Man. But I was tired, hot, and seriously stressed out; I didn't know how long I could keep up the facade.
"Epistolary conventions of eros demand . . ." Randy said.
I stifled a yawn. It was stuffy in the room.
"And, then, given the tenuous preservation of literary ephemera, leading to failed transmission of even the most fundamental biographical data . . ."
Good God. Would he never shut up? I stretched my neck, trying to ease the tension in my shoulders. It had been a hectic month: classes, papers, exams, frantic students with eleventh-hour crises--suicidal friends, dying grandmothers, obscurely terrifying medical diagnoses. I took the opportunity to look around.
The Enfield College faculty was making merry. The president's annual Christmas reception for faculty and staff was being held in the public chambers of the president's mansion. Excuse me: the president's house. At Enfield the word mansion would be considered vulgar. To me it looked like a mansion, but I've always been smart enough to take on protective coloration. If anyone asked, tonight I was at the president's house.
I am not used to opulence, understated or otherwise, having grown up in a row house in Lowell, Massachusetts. In Lowell, we thought faded red paper fold-out bells were festive, and sagging loops of green and red construction paper. Lowell wasn't very far from Enfield, but in every way that mattered it was immeasurably distant. Not that my success as an academic had turned me into a snob. It was just that I'd learned early--very early--that poverty can breed ignorance, abuse, and fear. Learned it, so to speak, in my very bones. A little opulence, now and then, looks pretty damn good to me.
Suddenly, I'd had enough of Randy. Tenure was five years in my future; I'd tough it out. I gave him a fraudulent smile, touched my empty glass with a finger whose significance I assumed required no deconstruction, and began to back down the steps as smoothly as I could. I was heading for the bar.
I began to cruise, looking for my friend Greg Samoorian, who'd just that day been tenured in the Anthropology Department. I did careful surveillance as I made my way through the crush of faculty members, administrators, and spouses. The last thing I wanted was to fall into Randy's clutches again.
"Professor Pelletier?" Behind me, the voice was hushed, almost furtive. I spun around. "Would you like a glass of champagne?" Sophia Warzek. Pale. Blond. Much too thin. A townie on scholarship, working her way through Enfield. The black uniform dress hung loosely on her, as if it had been made for someone from a much more robust species--like, maybe, for a human being.
"Sophia?" I took a glass from the tray. Waterford. Nice. I sipped. The champagne was nice, too. "Sophia, are you losing weight or something? You don't look at all well."
"No. I'm okay." She gave me a bright smile. I wasn't convinced. "I'm just tired. It's been a rough semester." Sophia looked so frail holding the heavy silver tray, I had to resist an impulse to take it from her.
"Yeah," I said. "I imagine. You work too hard. And you're really much too thin. And all of a sudden, too." I narrowed my eyes, thinking of anorexia, not an uncommon problem with Enfield's women students. "What's going on with you?"
I would never have asked such a personal question of any other student. But, like me, Sophia was an outsider at prestigious Enfield. And there's no denying it: Like calls to like. With my factory-town upbringing and her immigrant parents, Sophia and I knew the American class system from the bottom up. The view was not a pretty one.
In the crowded, noisy room, Sophia contemplated my question as if she might actually answer it. Then and there. Tray full of champagne and all. Then someone jostled her arm, she staggered, and that time I did grab for the tray. A pair of large, muscular hands reached it first, righted it. Oh, God, no! Not Randy Astin-Berger again.
"Uhh." Sophia blanched as Randy's hand closed over hers on the tray. Then she turned back to me, and her voice became furtive again. "Maybe I'll call you. About that late paper, I mean."
Late paper? Sophia was a fastidiously punctual student. Her final research paper had been sitting, unread, on my office desk for over a week, while the others filtered in days late. She faltered, obviously thinking she'd been too presumptuous. "What I mean is, if that's all right?"
"Sure," I replied. "Anytime." But she had scampered away with her heavy tray, looking as if she should be at home, confined to strict bed rest, rather than serving fine wine to professors already too tipsy to appreciate it.
"Karen," Randy said, but he was staring after Sophia. When she disappeared in the crowd, he turned back to me, fixing me with his torrid eye. "I've made up my mind." His smile was munificent, Zeus showering a mere mortal maiden with his divine largess. "I've decided to share some delightful news with you."
Share? The thought of sharing anything with Randy Astin-Berger left me more than a little nauseous.
"You'll be thrilled. I guarantee it. But first I've got to see--someone." He waggled his fingers in the air. The someone was a mere annoyance. Would be disposed of with dispatch. "But after that, what say we blow this scene?" He gave me a suggestive little leer. Surely his eyes were just a bit too bright? His pupils slightly contracted?
This was a problem. I wasn't about to go anywhere with this smirking, self-important blowhard. Even if he was a sure bet to be future chair of my department.
"Jeez, Randy, I'm sorry. I've got a date later." A date with my own narrow bed, thank you very much.
"Yeah?" Eyes narrowed. Thinking about asking me with whom. Still sober enough, thank heaven, to rethink such a crude impulse. "Well, okay, listen, I'll catch you before you go. Look for me. Right?" An intimate squeeze of the upper arm, a follow-up leer, and he was weaving away through the crowd.
Not if I can help it, dude. All I wanted now was to find Greg, congratulate him, and get the hell out of here. I'd worry about Randy's unwanted attentions later.
But I couldn't get his words out of my mind. Thrilled? I'd be thrilled? What could Randy Astin-Berger possibly have to tell me that would thrill me?
The last real thrill I'd had was the job offer from Enfield the year before. A fairy tale come true. Who would have believed it? Karen Pelletier (that's PELL-uh-teer, the New England pronunciation, not the more elegant French) from Lowell, Massachusetts. Pregnant and married at eighteen. A mother at nineteen. Divorced and destitute at twenty-one. And now--a professor at Enfield College.
It hadn't been easy. Night school, waitressing, scholarships, loans, teaching fellowships: I'd patched together piecemeal the education that seems to fall, ripe and succulent, into my students' laps. And I'd raised Amanda, too--and hadn't done a bad job of it. She was a major pain in the neck, of course, but then, who wasn't at eighteen?
After two years as an assistant professor at a New York City education factory, I'd been recruited by Enfield last year on the basis of my forthcoming book on class and classical American writers. I was--as I said--thrilled to accept their offer. Even left the man I loved to do so.
Was it worth it? Well . . . I was beginning to wonder.
I cruised by a cluster of colleagues engaged in spirited debate over the most recent rap group censorship case. All the faces were white; most were middle-aged. Jill Greenberg, by far the youngest in this contentious group, reached out and fingered the sleeve of my white silk dress. Raising her eyebrows in approval, she smiled at me, kept hold of the silk, and smoothly peeled away from the others.
"Do you think any one of that bunch has ever actually listened to rap?" she muttered as she guided me in the direction of the hors d'oeuvre table. In the fervor of argument, Jill's unruly red hair, gathered with a purple ribbon in an asymmetrical bunch on the top of her head, had begun to sag over her forehead. Anyone else would have looked slovenly. Jill looked adorable.
"Neat dress," she said, relinquishing my sleeve and stacking a small plate high with crabmeat puffs. "Emily's?"
I was startled into laughter. "How'd you guess?"
I took the opportunity to change the subject. "Have you seen Greg Samoorian? I've been looking for him all evening."
"He's around here somewhere. Over by the bar, I think. Getting soused." Jill put the plate of hors d'oeuvres down on a small side table. "You know, I'm really happy for him, getting tenure and all, but I'm sick about the rest of them. Those motherfuckers on the Executive Committee . . ."
I raised my eyebrows. I'm only thirty-seven but Jill made me feel positively middle-aged and staid.
"Yeah, I know, indiscreet again. But, jeez, Karen. From what I hear, all four of the candidates were backed by their departments. Lots of publications, good service, but they were all blackballed by the committee. Especially by that asshole, Astin-Berger."
"That's what I heard, too. That Randy opposed everyone, including Greg. But that he was especially hard on Ned Hilton."
"Yeah, so they say. It breaks my heart about Ned."
I think she meant it; she fell into an uncharacteristic silence.
"What I heard," Jill burst out, "was that Astin-Berger said Ned's work was adequately argued, and eloquently phrased, and did shed some new light on Milton, but it simply wasn't exciting, wasn't theoretically sophisticated, wasn't on the cutting edge. Jerk! Who does he think he is, anyhow? The arbiter of all true knowledge?"
I calmed Jill down and gratefully handed her over to Ralph Bottoms, the assistant chair of Sociology, her own department. "Behave yourself," I muttered, as he approached. "You want to be tenured, someday, don't you?" She shrugged, but turned toward Ralph sedately enough.
When I did find Greg, he was drunk. "Why not?" he demanded, with boozy smugness. "I'm tenured, aren't I?" Leaning against a nineteenth-century cherry-wood highboy, he was slightly disheveled. The knot on his sedate blue-striped tie was loosened and the tie itself hung askew. His grin, a roguish flash of white in a dark, bearded face, also seemed somewhat askew.
"You've been tenured for about four and a half hours. I'm not sure it's not revocable."
His grin faded. "It's tough, you know. I didn't think it would be so tough." The pain in his eyes was a mix of whiskey and self-pity. Heavy on the whiskey.
"What's tough? Being tenured?"
"Yeah." He appeared puzzled. "Yeah. I thought I'd be thrilled, over the top with ecstasy. But instead I feel--contaminated. This whole thing has been so slimy, you know. Why me, for instance, and not Ned? Ned's work isn't flashy, but it's interesting. I don't particularly care for Milton, but Ned's my pal so I read his book. It made me see the seventeenth century in a whole new light. He would have been tenured for certain if it wasn't for that prick, Astin-Berger. . . ." He paused, in something that obviously seemed to him to pass for deep--even pained--thought. To me it looked more like alcoholic stupor.
"You're really sloshed, aren't you?"
"Well, I should be. It's my third Johnnie Walker Black in, let's see"--he looked at his watch--"just under one-half hour."
"I think it should be your last." Children of alcoholics are often prudish about booze.
But even with his loopy grin and his inebriated self-pity, I found Greg charming. To be honest, I liked him partly because he looked so damn good to me. Oh, his vulnerability and quirky intelligence went with the package, but it didn't hurt that, burly and bearded, he looked more as if he belonged on the docks than on a college campus. Greg looked good to me, but I was very careful about it. He was married. That mattered to both of us.
The string quartet segued from "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" into "What Child Is This?" and I decided I'd had enough merriment. Greg looked as if he needed a friend, a cup of coffee, and a designated driver--not necessarily in that order.
"How about coffee at the Blue Dolphin? I'll drive. Heck, I'll even buy. This is your big day."
Our coats hung in the massive walk-in closet in the alcove under the left staircase. Knowing the gossip likely to be engendered by even the most innocent actions in this incestuous little community, Greg and I agreed to meet in ten minutes in the portico outside the front door.