Sunrooms, Starbucks, and Salmon Steak: Academic Nonsense and Domestic Sensibility in Lev Raphael's Nick Hoffman Mysteries
Hawlitschka, Katja, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
At the beginning of Little Miss Evil, Nick Hoffman, the first-person narrator and amateur sleuth of Lev Raphael's campus mysteries, asks his partner Stefan, "'Do you think we spend too much time on food?'" Puzzled, Stefan, replies, "'What do you mean?'" just having finished dicing leeks and shallots for a potato lasagna with wild mushrooms and a celery herb sauce. Taking a sip of Delicieux de Noix, a walnut aperitif, Nick explains, "'Well, we talk about it, we read food magazines, restaurant reviews, sometimes even plan vacations around where we're going to eat.'" Nick goes on to point out all the kitchen remodeling they just completed that summer: "'Gray-blue granite countertops and backsplashes, antiqued, glass-doored cabinetry; and appliance garages that reduced the clutter'" (1). Stefan is not convinced, and when Nick suggests, tentatively, that "maybe we should eat more simply," Stefan concludes that "'you've been reading too many of those Janet Evanovich books'" (2). The bottom line: Stefan needs to cook in order to be able to relax, and for both Stefan and Nick, food is an important part of their domestic comfort zone: a safe haven to survive, refuel, and help solve the crimes of their often deadly academic surroundings. As Stefan asks, "'How else could you deal with working in a department of psychopaths?'" (LM E 5).
Stefan and Nick both teach in the English, American Studies, and Rhetoric department of the State University of Michigan, Stefan as the writer- in-residence, and Nick as an untenured composi- tion professor and Edith Wharton specialist. As in most academic novels, both their department and the entire university are snake pits of deadly rivalries, "administrative idiocy," and an all- around weirdness that makes "Alice in Wonder- land look like a documentary" (BDTH 22). The building that houses the EAR department is a dilapidated dump with "enormous, inhumanly high ceilings and windows; sagging, heavy floors; exposed piping; more than occasional bats; and lots of dark and smelly corners" (LGC 47); and Nick's colleagues are a collection of "braggarts, egotists, careerists, and no-talents" (DCL 245), split into rival comp and literature camps. The rhetoric professors are "surly, querulous, and under-qualified... their of fices... smaller, their schedules less convenient, and their complaints ignored" (EWM 2). The rest of the faculty "despised them." The administration, of course, is a nightmare, "a small-potatoes version of Russia's current kleptocracy... [existing] solely to enrich a small group of people: upper-level administrators, the president, and the sports staff" (BTDH 9), while test-marketing the mis- sion, "Students are important." Often, Nick's pessimism also extends to academia in general: "People tell me that academia isn't the real world, but what could be more real than envy, hypocrisy, back-stabbing, overblown rhetoric, cruelty, obsession with reputation, and the steady shredding of other people's dignity?" (LME 5).
In addition to all the regular lethality, SUM has been plagued by a string of murders and murder attempts, all somehow related to Nick and his department. The victims include his office mate in Let's Get Criminal, two English majors, and two lesbian writers at an Edith Wharton conference (a conference designed to improve SUM's reputation in the area of women's issues). In the light of all this mayhem, it's no surprise that Nick- worried about his constantly wavering tenure chances, but also simply a nice and sensitive guy- needs to find refuge, sustenance, and refueling energy away from academic politics. Teaching and research often help, but even more important is the comfort he finds in domestic pleasures: quiet hours with Stefan, their remodeled home ("a pretty center-hall Colonial on the kind of green and quiet street you often see in thrillers like Face/Off, in which ordinary people's lives explode with improbabilities" [LME 39]); their garden, sunroom, and state-of-the-art kitchen-and, of course, good food and drink: leisurely Sunday breakfasts with designer omelets and the New York Times; coffee, tea, and wine selections to match all moods and occasions; stress-relief Haagen Dazs; and, often twice daily, homecooked meals from what seems straight (or gay) out of Bon Appetit. …