James Tate Hill’s Academy Gothic is a contemporary murder mystery laden with dark humor, sharp wit, and suspense. The book opens with Tate Cowlishaw, a visually-impaired adjunct professor sleuthing around his dean’s office, while the dean himself lies on the ground with three bullets in his head.
Tate launches into investigator-mode, not necessarily to bring justice to the late Dean Simkins, but more to protect his own interests: a renewed teaching contract at a school that’s not tainted by a reputation for unsolved murder. “[S]chools where people get away with murdering deans don’t show up in the Princeton Guide,” he says.
The plot thickens as Tate encounters more and more of Simkins’ enemies. As a top administrator, Simkins was loathed by ex-employees, who he’d strategically fired a few years before pension eligibility, and by current employees, who he required to supply their own paper for the copier. He was particularly despised by the school’s students and their families who’d forked out thousands a year for a shoddy education. “Whoever murdered that Simkins fellow was probably tired of writing forty-four thousand dollar checks each September and seeing no return on their investment,” Hill writes.
As the narrator, Tate’s even temperament and indifference to crime scenes often make him appear like suspect #1. He stumbles upon one dead body after the next with a sociopath’s demeanor, lacking reactions such as shock, empathy, and most of all, horror. In one scene, gunshots go off around him and he seems muted to the incident. Standard human response to finding a colleague on the floor with three bullets in his head would be to fret or at least call the authorities, not sleuth around stealing coupons and rationalizing it with, “They didn’t pay me much.” This literary approach may be Hill’s attempt to make the narrator appear neutral, at least in the presence of the crime scenes. We are never truly privileged to what Tate knows or what he may be concealing, which doesn’t make him an unreliable narrator, but suspiciously reliable.
Overall, Hill sets his scenes well. Characterization is never in short supply, and he describes a person through their movements and reactions in lieu of rambling adjectives, dialogue instead of monologues of information dump. There’s also a fair share of dry and witty humor sprinkled throughout:
“Do you need a ride?”
I hesitated, working through the calculus of whether or not to accept a favor. There are additional equations for favors from someone you’ve slept with and hope to sleep with again. Mollie and I had failed, I occasionally believed, because I had asked her for one too many rides to the supermarket.
I waited for her to call me clever in that special way that meant “asshole.”
There are occasions when his style is short-cadenced and tacky and it’s better just to skim.
I waited for the shower to get warm. The phone rang. I turned off the water and listened. The machine waited four rings. The voice wasn’t one I had heard in my room in three years.
Her lips pushed a little less gently against mine. Our tongues finished the job. It was a long job, but I didn’t mind the work.
Hill also portrays a few of the leading female characters in an abysmal light. They exude a ditzy-ness, lack of independence, are conveniently beautiful, emotionally unstable, and have a predisposition to throw themselves at their male lead. Carly plays the typical damsel in distress card one too many times, often helpless (can’t park a car?) and psychologically weak, sobbing in Tate’s lap and saying things like, “please don’t hate me” and “I wasn’t sure I could trust you” and “this is my fault.” Enter more cringe-worthy descriptions such as,
The sky behind her curtains was hardly blue, but there are worse things than being awakened before dawn by a beautiful woman offering to cook you eggs.
At times, these women feel like old black-and-white detective show clichés. Although possibly written as satire, the content falls offensively flat. Hill does earn credit for having Tate philandering with another professor as opposed to a starry-eyed student. The world does not need another “adjunct professor beds smoking hot, inappropriately aged, and low-self-esteemed student and aspiring writer” storyline, and Hill makes sure never to trespass on that territory.
All in all, Academy Gothic is a contemporary piece of literature with attitude, humor, and edge. A glimpse into the underworld of school politics, Hill’s debut novel is a coolly entertaining read.