James Tate Hill, a Charleston native, won the Nilsen Prize for his first novel, “Academy Gothic,” a murder mystery set at a fictional, economically challenged college on its last legs, as many truly are these days.
Parshall College boasts black mold, broken windows (why fix it? It’ll just encourage more vandalism) and “revisioned” courses, such as Biology 101 reduced to “Scientific Skills.” In these details, Hill is exaggerating, slightly.
The protagonist, Tate Cowlishaw, is a lecturer (a full-time college teacher who does not have tenure), at the college for five years. I anticipated in this novel similarities with Richard Russo’s “Straight Man,” a flat-out send up of academia in the most wickedly funny way. In Russo’s book, the ducks from the pond in the quad end up dead. In “Academy,” the dean of the school ends up murdered in his office.
A different kind of humor fills Hill’s “Academy,” which is more snarky, absurdist humor. Hill uses the first person point of view, the “I.” Using the first person in a novel can render the narrator a bit unreliable, which makes for a nice author twist when said unreliable narrator/protagonist is also supposedly solving a murder.
To further provide a twist, Tate is nearly blind, with access only to his peripheral vision. “[When] I turned sixteen . . . my optic nerves decided to take early retirement.”
He knows he can’t teach his way out of a paper bag — and doesn’t care. He’s there because one of the trustees of the college stereotypically felt Tate, with vision problems, might be able to detect ghosts on the campus (all those other “enhanced” senses, you see). The ghost, the trustee is convinced, is the one who must be causing all the college’s problems.
Tate teaches, so to speak, and is supposed to patrol the campus twice a month. A Ghost Buster! Of course, in the five years he’s been at the college, he patrolled exactly once.
So we have an unreliable narrator, who is suspect as even a decent human being, investigating a murder, which, by the way, was ruled a suicide. Three bullet wounds to the victim’s head apparently fails to convince the local gendarmes it might be murder. Few, if any, at the college liked the dean, so there were many suspects. Tate has a greater concern, however — to him, anyway. Whenever there’s a change at the head of a college, many expect job loss (a fact that’s very true in real life). If Tate can find out who killed the dean, he might have a chance to save his own job.
In the effort to solve the mystery, romance beckons, fist fights erupt between the most unsuspecting characters, faculty and student files disappear, and the whole, wild romp drags Tate deeper into the mystery. There’s even the requisite black sedan parked outside, with someone watching from a slight distance.
This unconventional murder mystery stretches the credulity of normal expectations, but then that’s where the gothic part comes in, to make the farce a bit dark as the truth of academia is revealed. And slacker Tate? His amateur sleuthing benefits him in a way you might not see coming, as he works to solve the who-done-it.
It’s difficult to write humor. One reader’s chuckle at a humorous situation is a cricket-inducing moment for another. As a former college lecturer and currently an academic adjunct (part-timer), I salivated at the idea of reading a farcical comedy taking the college administrators down a peg or two ... did I say that out loud? Awww — to my program director bosses, you know I was just kidding!
Hill’s first trip out of the publication box bodes well for future, funny books. And “Academy” might just brighten your day with a few chuckles. How many can say that while reading a murder mystery?
Cat Pleska is a writer, educator and publisher. She is the president of Mountain State Press and an essayist at West Virginia Public Radio. Her website is www.catpleska.com, and she can be reached by email at