When Lev Raphael finished “Assault With a Deadly Lie,“ he thought it would be the last mystery book he would write.
“I didn’t see where the series would go from there,” Raphael said. But something changed his mind.
His inspiration came from the usual locale for his mysteries: Michigan State University and its ongoing saga with handling sexual assault cases. For 12 years, the author taught writing in the English Department and the American Thought and Language program at MSU while he wrote 26 fiction and nonfiction books. He also taught writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Fordham University.
“This book is a book I didn’t expect to write, but it was a book I had to write,” said Raphael referring to his recent novel, “State University of Murder: A Nick Hoffman Mystery.”
“It was ripped from the headlines-literally,” Raphael said, using a cliché he teaches writing students not to use. Since retiring from MSU, he has been teaching writing online at writewithoutborders.com. His next workshop runs in June and is titled “Mystery Writing 1.0.”
He finds online teaching much more satisfying than teaching in a classroom. Online courses are limited to 10 students per class, contrasted with 25 or more students in a typical classroom.
“Online I can provide much more individual attention to a student’s writing,” he said.
Raphael added, “I was ready to walk away from the arrogance and inhumanity of administrators.” This sentiment is echoed in the book series by its protagonist, English Professor Nick Hoffman, and his spouse, Stefan.
He also said he was deeply influenced by two women he knew, who felt their assault cases weren’t handled properly by MSU. Both women were former employees at Michigan State University. Their situations were widely covered by news outlets.
“Knowing these two women was the nexus for writing the book and it pays tribute to their story,” he said.
The new book begins with Hoffman and the hiring of a new chairman for his department at the fictional State University of Michigan.
Except for his foreboding first name, the new chairman, Napoleon Padovani appears to be charming, fashionably dressed and cosmopolitan. However, he soon lives up to his name and begins to dismantle or change assignments and program direction without any obvious reason.
At first, Hoffman and Stefan admire Napoleon, but when he tries to bully Hoffman into hiring his choice for a residence in an endowed program, Hoffman gets suspicious. Mystery readers will recognize what comes next — a body and an investigation to find a murderer. What’s left is sorting out everyone’s motives, and it’s not easy.
Raphael said he likes to take real situations and take them to extremes.
“Mysteries are a good vehicle for social criticism and satire,” he said.
And Raphael uses those two characteristics to parody State University of Michigan, SUM and by design, MSU.
Some of the criticism of academia in the book is thinly veiled and points directly at his former employer.
He writes: “Money, Reputation and Sports were SUM’s Holy Trinity.” Later in a conversation with Stefan he asks, “Don’t’ you think SUM’s become even more corporate, more interested in big bucks from foreign students? It’s like this giant whirlpool sucking in money without paying attention to its core mission to teach and reach out to the community. What happened to caring about our land grant heritage?”
Readers will also discover that Hoffman is not fond of the trend to “brand” universities — think “Spartans’ Will” or “Spartan Nation.”
Raphael also weaves into his mystery a physical relocation of the English program from a historical building to what he described in the book as “an eyesore: three small, grim squat floors of white tile and streaky white linoleum…It looked more like the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company than anything related to education.” This is more than reminiscent of some changes on the MSU campus.
Raphael said writing his newest book inspired him to continue the series, and he is working on the 10th iteration.
As with all his mystery books, “State University of Murder” is peppered with literary references and author quotes ranging from William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” to Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays.”
Raphael said in addition to online teaching, he is keeping himself busy learning Dutch and Swedish and taking voice lessons through the MSU Community Music School.
“It’s just a hobby,” he said. However, who really knows what could inspire the author’s next plot for a murder mystery.