Hypocrisy, secrets, power struggles and even murder are at the center of author Lev Raphael’s latest book, and no, it’s not set amongst cutthroat pirates or even politicians, “State University of Murder: A Nick Hoffman Mystery” takes place in the seemingly mundane halls of academia. Still, it’s not all seriousness, this cultural satire takes a deep dive into the delicate politics of higher education with a sense of humor that reviewers have called “delightful,” “pointed” and “witty.”
This is Raphael’s ninth mystery book with LGBTQ character Nick Hoffman at the lead. Hoffman being a professor, too, Raphael said his own education and experiences as an LGBTQ educator himself have helped give him an informed, true-to-life, inside look at the higher learning community, warts and all, throughout Hoffman’s existence. And “State University of Murder” provides not only another glimpse into that reality but a topical one as well.
Raphael took the time to catch up with BTL to share more about Nick Hoffman’s latest adventure, his inspiration for this mystery and his writing process.
This is the ninth Nick Hoffman story, so clearly academia is rich source material for satire. What drew you to it as a topic initially?
There’s all this high-minded rhetoric about a community of learning and a community of scholars and shepherding young minds and you name it, and it’s [a] reality that many schools are just a number of [sports] teams with classes attached. You can see where the values are in how much money is spent and where it’s spent, so, I saw that this was a great subject for satire and that’s the tone of the book. The murders themselves are not satirical, those are taken very seriously, but the university world, the academic world, is a world where people are not treated as well as they should be.
Mystery books make up only a small portion of what you’ve written; you’ve published everything from books on the LGBTQ community, the Jewish community and even self-help books. What keeps you coming back to the mystery genre?
Oh, I discovered Agatha Christie when I was in junior high at my local library and I just fell in love with her books. Her plots are so intricate that I can re-read a book of hers years later and I won’t remember who did it. I was just fascinated by it and I just started reading all the mysteries on the shelves and fell in love with the genre. And, you know I’m the son of Holocaust survivors and, at a certain point, a number of my works had been published already when one of my editors said, ‘Your work is pretty dark, why don’t you try writing something funny?’ And then I immediately thought of a mystery series in academia because it was the funniest environment I knew.
What draws you in about crime stories like this one?
Crime fiction is one of the most popular genres in the country along with romance, and that tells you something, right? Two sides of life: murder and romance. And I never know when exactly I’m going to write a book, because I write in other genres as well, so the mystery series is sort of a vacation for me from the other books that I write, whatever they happen to be. And that’s a great thing about having a mystery series because you have some core characters who keep returning so you’re not starting from scratch and inventing a whole new world. Even though that world changes and those people change, you have a foundation which is really nice, it’s like the bar in “Cheers,” it’s nice to come back, you feel at home.
Where do you draw inspiration for Nick? Is he based off of yourself or anyone you know?
He’s part of me and so is his partner Stefan, but not all me. There’s no one-to-one correspondence to any character, they’re all pretty much inspired by someone or a few people and then I develop them into someone else.
This particular story deals with sexual assault and harassment, topics that as of late have been more widely discussed in the media and even in your work environment. Since you went to school and now work at Michigan State University, did you draw inspiration from any of the events surrounding the Larry Nassar scandal?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I was really, as I think we all were in Michigan, horrified by what was revealed to have been going on at Michigan State with the Larry Nassar scandal and many other issues connected to sexual assault and sexual harassment. All of that was focused for me because I was teaching there at the time and my office mate had been assaulted by someone, told me about it and he had been stalking her. And actually, it was somebody who was on campus. Then, one of my creative writing students started telling me about someone who was stalking her and I said, ‘Wait a minute, this sounds like the same guy,’ and it actually was. And I put the two of them in touch with each other and I have to say that each one of them felt very badly treated by MSU, and so the book is not a transcription of their experiences but because of knowing them and because of knowing what was going on I thought I need to write something that not only includes sexual assault and sexual harassment, but it’s about the abuse of power because I think that’s the larger question.
Do recent occurrences in academia always inspire your latest Nick Hoffman mysteries?
Not really, but I have often been moved by what’s been going on in the country. So, the previous one, “Assault with a Deadly Lie,” I had been reading for years how SWAT teams had been hitting the wrong house for one reason or another, either they were called and somebody sicced them on somebody or they just got the wrong address and how people were maimed or injured or abused, dogs were shot and there are thousands of these raids every year. I mean, I think Americans don’t know that, so that made me feel, as I read more and more about those that I have to do something about that. I mean, in a sense the book was a protest book and so was this. Yes, they are academic mysteries and, yes, they are satirical, but they have a message woven into the story.
To find out more about Lev Raphael and his latest work go online to levraphael.com. To purchase “State University of Murder” visit amazon.com.