Cover image for Little Miss Evil : a Nick Hoffman mystery
Little Miss Evil : a Nick Hoffman mystery
Raphael, Lev.
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Publication Information:
New York : Walker & Co., [2000]

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184 pages ; 22 cm
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Little Miss Evil, the fourth novel in the highly acclaimed series by Lev Raphael, begins on a high note. It appears that Nick Hoffman's career is finally moving in the right direction, and the celebrity that comes with solving murders has brought him more students than he can possibly handle. But things are never calm at the State University of Michigan: Nick's partner's career seems to be spiraling down and out of control; a new faculty member is causing a lot of nasty talk; and cryptic messages are showing up in Nick's mailbox. What turns up next is a corpse ... and some unsettling thoughts for the reluctant sleuth.

With a brilliant eye for detail and a scalpel as a pen, Raphael continues to skewer the academic community while providing mystery fans with a tantalizing and entertaining puzzle.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The fourth in Raphael's Nick Hoffman series is set once again at the mythical State University of Michigan, where hordes of academics equivalent to migrant workers labor as teaching assistants, adjuncts, and gypsy scholars officed in mildewed basements. Add a few tenured professors, all eager to claw up the ladder, preferably by stepping on someone else's head, and you have only to throw in fat, ugly, stupid, and badly dressed administrators to round out the cast of Raphael's usual suspects. These vipers in the grove academe are seething with envy as Camille Cypriani, best-selling trash novelist, is awarded a well-endowed chair. Her arrival coincides with threats to Nick in the form of cryptic messages, a burnt-out mailbox, and a vandalized office. A corpse seems destined to appear, but the long-awaited murder occurs more than three-quarters of the way into the book, with Nick's deduction close on its heels--dubious pacing that flies in the face of murder mystery traditions. Raphael should re-think this departure from form in forthcoming books. --Whitney Scott

Publisher's Weekly Review

Professor Nick Hoffman's fall semester gets off to a rocky start in the fourth of Raphael's amusing academic mysteries (The Death of a Constant Lover, etc.). When arrogant, bestselling author Camille Cypriani, "a cross between Anita Brookner and Judith Krantz," receives an endowed chair at the State University of Michigan, the normally rancorous English department turns into a festering zone of envy and resentment. The high-salaried appointee's office displaces a beloved, small library, while other professors are shunted to windowless quarters in the basement. Meanwhile, someone in the department is harassing Nick with threatening messages and vandalism; his lover, Stefan, the writer-in-residence, is in a funk over Camille's appointment and his own less-than-stellar sales; Nick's favorite cousin is facing risky surgery to remove a tumor near her brain; and Nick himself becomes confused when he finds himself attracted to the loud and sexy (and very female) professor of Canadian literature. The campus situation worsens when the university president speaks out for the creation of a Department of White Studies, setting off faculty and student protests. Nick and Stefan survive the upheaval in style and solve the inevitable murder of the resented new colleague. This satire of academia is an enjoyable diversion, despite its uneven, late-developing plot, its flat characterizations of Nick's co-workers-cum-murder suspects, and its author's tendency to stud his prose with glib name-dropping instead of substantive detail. Agent, Curtis Brown Ltd. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Because of previous sleuthing at the State University of Michigan (The Death of a Constant Lover), professor Nick Hoffman finds himself out of favor with the administration but popular with students. Who, then, is responsible for the threatening notes, the smoke-scented paperback, the immolated mailbox, and the vandalized office? Gossip, conjecture, and fidgeting ensue as Nick, longtime partner Stefan, and ex-model cousin Sharon try to figure things out. Only when bitter resentment over departmental politics erupts in murder does all become clear. Raphael compensates for a skimpy plot with an overextended exposition; however, this series addition will still appeal to fans. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Do you think we spend too much time on food?" I asked. Stefan turned from the cutting board where he had just finished dicing leeks and shallots for a potato lasagna with wild mushrooms and a celery herb sauce. He frowned. "What do you mean?"     I put down the glass of Délixir de Noix, the delicious walnut aperitif my cousin Sharon had sent us as a souvenir from her recent trip to the Dordogne, where walnut oil and walnuts were so integral a part of the cuisine that there was even a walnut museum. Or so she claimed.     "Well, we talk about it, we read food magazines, restaurant reviews, sometimes even plan vacations around where we're going to eat. Think about how we do Stratford." We went to that Ontario town's renowned Shakespeare festival every summer and always ate at its best and most expensive restaurant, The Church. "And just look at all this--!" I waved around the kitchen we'd had remodeled over the summer with gray-blue granite countertops and backsplashes; antiqued, glass-doored cabinetry; and appliance garages that reduced the clutter.     "Are you saying you're sorry we changed the kitchen?"     "No--that's not my point." I jabbed an Émile Zola finger at our three shelves of cookbooks and wine books, alphabetized by country (the former) and region (the latter). Our favorites in each category were frayed and stained. "Look at all that stuff!"     "Okay." Stefan nodded, the knife in his hand motionless. Stefan occasionally preferred knives over the Cuisinart, whose noise he found distracting. "And?"     "Well, maybe we should eat more simply."     To celebrate the fading of summer, and to steel ourselves for the beginning of the State University of Michigan's fall semester which cruelly started before Labor Day, we were making a leisurely dinner course by course that Sunday night before the first week of classes. A half hour ago, we had begun with chilled Cavaillon melon halves filled with port, sitting on comfortable bar stools at the new granite-topped kitchen island.     "Eat more simply--" Stefan repeated, glancing around us as if he were a king surveying his palace before fleeing the gunfire of a military coup. Then he smiled, and I could tell I was going to feel busted. Like many long-standing couples, Stefan and I didn't so much read each other's minds as read between the lines of what the other one was saying (sometimes there was a little subtext, sometimes there was a whole opera).     "Nick, you've been reading too many of those Janet Evanovich books," he said.     I had to grin. "Got it in one."     Stefan had been sampling the books I was considering teaching in my upcoming course in mystery fiction at the State University of Michigan, and he had some definite opinions of his own. Comic mysteries just weren't his thing.     He said, "You need to straighten yourself out--read some Dennis Lehane."     "That could work."     "And if I ever come home and find you eating peanut butter out of a jar or chomping down on cold pizza or handfuls of corn flakes, I'm not going to think you're simplifying your life, I'm going to assume you've got a new kind of Alzheimer's."     I was indeed experiencing a Stephanie Plum overdose, or side effect. Enjoying Evanovich's first few light mysteries, I'd been struck by how different hapless Stephanie's eating habits were from mine, and I was oddly, perhaps morbidly, fascinated. That drew me along in her series as much as the comic misadventures. It wasn't that I wanted her life (and in New Jersey!), but it intrigued me that she was so lackadaisical about food unless her mother was cooking. I wondered what it would feel like, and was almost a little ashamed of our devotion to eating well.     Stefan said, "Cooking isn't something I ever want to simplify. I need to spend time in the kitchen just like I need to spend time at the gym. It helps me relax."     That was unassailable. Stefan had to be able to unhook from obsessing about his fading career as a novelist. He may have started out well, over a decade ago, in a welter of good reviews, but literary fiction was as enticing a prospect these days as a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective to Jesse Helms. General sales were "trending down," as his agent put it, and Stefan's were leading the way. He had, in fact, reached the low point of his career.     Stefan's agent had been unable to sell his latest novel after his longtime publisher (which had been bought by a German conglomerate) dropped him from its list; his previous book hadn't gone into paperback; and his sales had been so weak that his last book was remaindered within a year of publication--a dismal first for him.     He'd been so upset about the book's failure that when a late review came in from the tiny Gaylord Gazette up in northern Michigan, he'd exploded at its many factual inaccuracies--and worse. "This reviewer named Una Vole--can you believe that name?--criticizes my style, says that `access of affection' is wrong. It's not wrong. It means onrush or surge ."     I remembered having proofread the novel, as I always did with his books, and suggested those last two choices precisely because less well-read people might think the word was a typo for excess . But Stefan had refused, insisting the rhythm of the sentence would change. Stefan had written a witty, angry, insulting letter to the reviewer, which I read on his computer screen and suggested he delete, using a line I'd used before: "Do you want to be known as a fine writer or a maniac?" He wavered, and I added, "You'll piss this nobody little reviewer off by pointing out her mistake, so what will it get you?" He backed off, muttering, and I felt relieved to have saved him from embarrassing himself.     "I love cooking. I need to relax," Stefan said in the kitchen, turning away and wielding the knife with savage efficiency. I didn't have trouble imagining who he might be picturing under the blade.     Aggravating Stefan's profound sense of shame over his career slide was the very disturbing presence of a brand-new member of the department: Pulitzer Prize--winning novelist Camille Cypriani, whom one critic called "a cross between Anita Brookner and Judith Krantz" for her literate but sexy best-sellers about lonely women in Paris and other glamorous cities. Over the summer, sixtyish Cypriani, who had been living in Boston, had been given a newly created endowed chair of women's literature in the English, American Studies, and Rhetoric Department (EAR) at the kind of salary only administrators make: $175,000.     Her surprise entrance into the department had thrust Stefan from his position as the most important writer--not that it had meant much lately. EAR's writing program was in chaos because two of its stalwarts, the husband-and-wife team Auburn and Mavis Kinderhoek, had been mostly either sick or on leave in the years we'd been at SUM. They were bitter and combative, so that was good for Stefan, but bad for students who couldn't depend on getting the writing workshops they wanted, when they wanted.     As the foremost Edith Wharton bibliographer, I would never face the same kind of pressure Stefan was under. The Olympians in the tiny field of Wharton studies, Cynthia Griffin Wolff and R. W. B. Lewis, were charming and supportive, but even if they hadn't been, no one could really supplant me because my work was invaluable and significant.     In addition to the summer timing, there were other anomalies about Camille's position. Her endowment was anonymous and surprising in its specifications. For her first year, Cypriani didn't even have to teach or work with students; all she was required to do was host an occasional "literary luncheon" with writing students and faculty, and do one reading for the public. The whole situation was humiliating for Stefan because he wasn't consulted about the choice--everything connected to the position went through the provost's office. And Stefan not only felt dwarfed by Cypriani's reputation and her salary, but she had snubbed him in the past and continued to do so whenever they happened to meet on campus or in town.     I watched Stefan work. He looked a lot like Ben Cross in Chariots of Fire , only shorter and more muscular, and right now he could have been one of that rash of new-wave hunky chefs displaying his good looks on the cover of a cookbook, laying himself out like a buffet.     "You like cooking and eating, too," he said quietly. "You even like the grocery shopping. It makes sense. It's soothing. How else could you deal with working in a department of psychopaths?"     "I've never called them that."     "You've called them everything but ."     "Fair enough."     "Is sociopaths better?"     "Maybe." More accurately, though, you could describe my colleagues in EAR as The Planet of the Apes on a really bad hair day. And every year there I seemed to be living through another cheesy sequel.     People tell you 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? The only things missing are real weapons and real money--but you wouldn't know that from the ferocity of faculty squabbles.     Unaware of this cross between Chernobyl and Chinatown before getting my Ph.D., I had become one of its denizens because I loved teaching--but heading into my fifth year at the State University of Michigan in Michiganapolis (SUM), I wondered if I'd make it through another five after this one, even if I were to get tenure. Stefan had it already and was set for life in a position that was prestigious--writer-in-residence--even if out in the publishing world his name had turned to bookstore poison. I, on the other hand, was a composition professor. That made me in the academic world only a lost figure in the great army of academics and just a step or two above temporary instructors and graduate assistants--disposable, replaceable, hardly worth anyone's notice.     Let's put it this way: if composition professors had been the ones holding off the Persians, nobody would ever have heard of Thermopylae.     Ironically, though, given our interests, Stefan had become less successful since we had moved to Michiganapolis from western Massachusetts and from a series of temporary positions, and in a way you could say that I'd become more so. I was one of the most popular professors at the State University of Michigan in Michiganapolis, but for all the wrong reasons: scandal and murder.     Three years of murder, in fact. First my office mate, then people at an Edith Wharton conference I'd organized, and later students I'd known. While my record of murdered acquaintances wasn't as bad as Jessica Fletcher's, it was still deeply troubling to me. This notoriety was not exactly the way I'd hoped to make my mark. I was, after all, a bibliographer, and what could be further from that kind of dogged, scrupulous, nitpicky research than murder? Postal workers, victims of horrific abuse, and followers of racist creeds might go berserk, but when's the last time you heard a reporter talk about index cards and photocopying in the context of serial killing?     And even though my background did help prepare me for trying to figure out what was going on in each instance, nobody in my department seemed to appreciate the connection between bibliography and sleuthing--or give me points for my investigations. Like someone in a witness protection program, our university prized order and normality over everything else. So my colleagues, my department chair, and the SUM administration squirmed because I'd been involved in so much bad publicity for the university.     But SUM students were loving it.     After my third "episode" the previous spring semester, students had started crowding my regular office hours, clamoring for appointments when they couldn't make those, and just showing up at odd times in the hope of seeing me. It doesn't sound dramatic to anyone who hasn't been a teacher at the college level. But the troth is that except for sycophants, students typically avoid office hours for fear of saying something stupid to their professors--with no place to hide!--or because they dislike the class and can't bear any extra exposure to its "content provider," as professors were supposed to be called according to some idiotic new university decree.     This flow of students to my office was matched by the students signing up for my classes, each of which had been overenrolled in preregistration, leaving me in the unpleasant and unusual position of having to tell students they couldn't add me to their schedules. The mystery class I was scheduled to teach the following spring semester had been filled to capacity within minutes of opening for registration, and EAR had received a stream of complaints from students demanding that I teach another section.     Even before the semester had started, the students surged expectantly to my new office in crumbling Parker Hall as if it were a tiny theme park: Murder World. And, frankly, my own brush with death and all the wild stories about me in Michigan and national media guaranteed that I could have cleaned up if I'd opened a souvenir stand, or at least sold a few postcards and snow globes.     I mused over all this during our quiet dinner as we poured glass after glass of Bergerac Sec in the kitchen, listening to Cesaria Evora's soulful Miss Perfumado album and mourning the coming change in the rhythm of our days. Were we spoiled by having the summer off from teaching? Yes, and most people worked harder jobs, though I doubt that anyone but other academics had such bizarre colleagues, which balanced it all out.     The windows were open on a surprisingly cool August evening, and we could hear the hissing of summer lawns, kids riding bikes, and the harmless hum of a postwar neighborhood of tree-lined streets and unostentatious well-landscaped homes north of SUM's sprawling, verdant campus.     After the lasagna, Stefan and I took half a pot of Kona, along with a plate of hazelnut cream cheese brownies, out to the sun room and watched the sky stripe itself in blue and black. Biting into my second brownie, I thought that Stephanie Plum had no idea what she was missing.     But while I was feeling replete, Stefan clearly wasn't thinking about our wonderful meal anymore. The magic and focus of preparation, the whole Zen way he had of cooking and serving, had evaporated. I could tell by the supernally quiet way he sat looking out at the backyard, where the gazebo seemed to glow as darkness poured down around it. When you live with an introvert, you get to realize there are many kinds of silences.     "Camille," I said.     He nodded. "Camille."     I may have admired her writing somewhat (not that I would dare tell Stefan), but in just a few chance meetings, I'd come to loathe Camille for the contemptuous way she treated Stefan and almost everyone else she had contact with. She had instantly become the most powerful member of the department, enjoyed showing it off, and even had the office to do it in. I suppose only in academia can somebody's office assignment become so controversial--and the semester hadn't even started.     The neglected--but at least nominally honored--Grace Jurevicius Memorial Library on Parker Hall's second floor had been dismantled and turned into Cypriani's office. This library had for twenty years housed the extensive collection of criticism, American fiction, and Michigania willed to EAR by a beloved and benign former chair from a less contentious era at SUM. It had been disbanded, the sign removed, and the books boxed and supposedly sent off to SUM's Special Collections in clear violation of both Jurevicius's will and department tradition. This was reason enough for most EAR faculty to resent Cypriani: not only was her office huge and blessed with a gorgeous view of SUM's old central campus, but almost everyone in EAR felt that she and her adherents had committed an act of desecration. I'd never met Grace Jurevicius, but it struck even me as ugly and insensitive. And typical.     "So what's next?" I'd asked in the EAR main office. "Burning all the books from the Jurevicius Library at Homecoming?" The line shot through the department as quickly as a fake political rumor on the Internet, and faculty members who had still barely noticed me even after four years stopped me to tell me they applauded my stand. I hadn't made a stand, just a joke, but in the superheated atmosphere of Parker Hall, who knew the difference?     I'd been especially praised by tiny Iris Bell and that cipher Carter Savery, two of the many downtrodden professors in EAR, who made a habit of outrage and were so incensed at Cypriani's hiring that they'd broadcast threats about filing a grievance. These sansculottes--who were on my tenure review committee--were former members of the old Rhetoric Department, which had been abolished well over a decade ago. Its quarrelsome and underqualified faculty had been amalgamated with English and American Studies, creating a bifurcated department whose split had never been healed. They were stuck teaching the EAR faculty's least popular course, composition, and because of departmental prejudice, their own abrasive personalities, and a generally poor publishing record, they were at the bottom of their rank in salary.     But however unlikable, they were going to judge my tenure application, and I had bragged to Stefan about their praise of me.     When Stefan heard I was getting kudos for my quip, he'd been upset. "People will use that against you," he warned.     "You mean they don't have enough ammunition already? Like my Edith Wharton conference ending with murder instead of a closing address?"     The truth was that even if I'd never been involved in any crime more outrageous than shoplifting, my position in FAR had always been tenuous. I was hired because I was Stefan's partner, and I taught and loved the least-respected course: composition. Though you could argue that everything else in the department rested on its foundation, it was simply too basic and boring for most EAR professors to take seriously. Even worse, most of those who had been teaching rhetoric (the "R" in EAR) before I got there were a lower caste foisted on the department through budget cutting, which deepened the general disgust for what I taught.     Even worse for me, I was good at it and consistently garnered strong student evaluations, which other faculty interpreted as pandering. But less palatable than that to many of the faculty was my status as a bibliographer, a pursuit most academics viewed as only a higher form of accounting. Certainly you needed to consult a bibliography now and then, but my profession was déclassé.     After we emptied the dishwasher and put everything away, Stefan went up to bed, and I called my cousin Sharon in New York. We'd been as close as brother and sister ever since I came out to her in my teens, but lately we'd been talking almost every day. That was because last spring she'd been diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor on her auditory nerve. Benign was a misleading term in this case; it would continue to grow unless operated on, damaging her nerves and eventually killing her. "Quietly malignant" seemed more accurate--a stealth tumor. It wasn't technically a brain tumor, but because taking it out would involve brain surgery, that's what Stefan and I called it.     One of the best neurosurgeons in the country, who could perform the surgery Sharon needed, was at SUM's medical school, and she had consulted him back in the spring after some surgeon-shopping in New York and Boston. But since then she had been pursuing various alternatives to surgery: acupuncture, guided imagery, a macrobiotic diet, Reiki treatment, shamanism--anything to keep the scalpels away from her head. It wasn't just the ex-model in her afraid of having her beauty stolen; I would have been desperate to avoid surgery myself.     "Hi, sweetie," she said. "You guys okay?"     "We're passable." That was my compromise, since I was fine but Stefan was depressed about his career. He had what thousands of people craved: he'd published books, won some prizes, been well reviewed--and yet it had turned bitter and disappointing in ways he couldn't have imagined in the years before his career took off.     "Tell me what you had for dinner, Nick."     I did, and she sighed appropriately. "If you guys ever left teaching, you could open up a restaurant or a B&B."     "Or we could sit around and gain weight. I know for sure that inside of me is a really fat person just dying to get out."     She laughed, but stopped when I asked if she'd made a decision yet about her surgery. "I'm going to drag this out as long as I can," she said gently. "It's too big to rush into."     "Isn't it too big to wait anymore?"     "Now you sound like my parents."     "Sorry, it's just that--"     "--you're worried. I know. So am I. But I'm still not ready. Please don't nag."     "`I don't nag,"' I quoted from a famous Alka Seltzer ad in the 1960s, "`Your mother nags.'" Sharon got it, and laughed gratefully. Then she skillfully switched to dishing: "So what's new in EAR?"     "I told you Coral Greathouse got the provost's job, right?"     "Coral was the stiff?"     "That's her. And she appointed Serena Fisch--Lady Jitterbug--as acting chair, which is good for me and Stefan since she's always had a kind of soft spot for us, and I could never figure Coral out."     "But didn't Serena used to be head of some other department?"     "Sharon, you've really been working with your study guide!"     "I need one. Your department is like a soap opera."     "Maybe. There sure aren't enough pretty faces, though. But you're right, Serena was the chair of the Rhetoric Department when it was independent, and since it got merged with English and American Studies, she's been suffering like a deposed monarch, so her being acting chair of EAR is pretty strange."     "You mean ironic?"     I nodded.     "Well, she's lucky she got to be chair at all, and that they didn't shoot her like the Romanovs and pour acid over the corpse."     When Sharon said things like that, she reminded me more than ever of Myrna Loy in The Thin Man . They had the same soft, steely self-assurance, and Sharon even resembled her a bit.     "And what about Camille Cypriani?" Sharon went on. "Anything new there?"     "Not much."     Sharon had read one of Camille's novels years ago, and had told me it wasn't so much a beach read as "bathtub reading"--if you dropped the book in the water, it wasn't a great loss. I'd kept Sharon apprised of each little twist and turn of the Camille story so far, and as a research librarian (her second career), she had been struck by the quiet brutality of the Jurevicius Library being uprooted to make way for Camille.     "That woman should hire a bodyguard," Sharon said. "Really! Your campus is like a Jacobean play without the poetry. Sooner or later, somebody always gets it in the neck." Copyright (c) 2000 Lev Raphael. All rights reserved.