I have only just read Death without Tenure and The Maltese Manuscript by Joanne Dobson, literary mystery writer of the Karen Pelletier series from Doubleday. I intend to read the entire series. They are literary, academic mysteries of intriguing, suspenseful plot and excellent characterization. They are also warm, sensitive and full of humanity. Brilliant Karen Pelletier, the sleuth, by virtue of stubbornness, determination, and professional passion pretty much asks for all the difficulties her curiosity brings upon her. But she perfectly captures my ideal image of the teaching Ph.D. who really cares about her students.
As part of my ongoing desire to shed light on the realities of academic life to would-be English professors, I add Dobson to my collection of references. Like the graduate students Pelletier teaches, I was incredibly naive many years ago. I dreamed of the professor’s life, but many years later I wondered why. All told I passed four years in the university, taking courses and notes in anticipation of writing a dissertation and then leading an idyllic life teaching and writing; especially challenging the minds of my students. Life in the university eluded me no matter how hard I deluded myself.
Certainly Dobson spins a great tale, but along the way her insights into academic life are lessons from which I might have benefited. I’m not sure I would have dropped out of grad school because of them — but I might have. How youth deceives itself! She depicts truths that only the rarest of tenured faculty would convey to a graduate student. One has to have the ears to hear and eyes to see.
Here’s one example of Dobson’s satire of academic jargon. At a dinner party in the Maltese Manuscript(p.83), Harriet, a member of the English faculty, asks of Sunnye, the famous detective novelist, “As a woman author suppressed by the cultural strictures of partriarchal capitalism, do you find murder provides you with a transgressive symbol system for an anti-essentialist social critique?”
“Sunnye stared at her. ‘Murder?’ she queried. ‘Are you asking me if I condone murder?’
“Only as a mode of hermeneutical rhetoric.”
“The novelist turned abruptly to me[Karen Pelletier].
‘What’s she talking about?’
‘I[Karen] translated. “I believe she’s asking if you write about murder in order to protest the male-dominated power structure of modern life.”
“She pursed her lips, annoyed. ‘Why doesn’t she say that?”
As far as I am concerned Dobson’s work and Karen Pelletier meet the highest purpose of the best literature — to teach and delight. David Milliken