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“The university is essential to the vitality to western civilization. What comes out of universities is really essential to our cultural and scientific outlook. That’s what’s being compromised. That’s why the killer is upset and knows that the only way to get the attention of the university is to start killing people off. They’re not going to pay attention if the killer just tells them what I’ve told you. That’s the grand argument of the book.”
“I’ve interviewed a good number of crime writers,” I tell Dr. James Carse, author of PhDeath: The Puzzler Murders, “and you’re the only one whose book has a grand argument.”
Carse and I are having coffee—actually, he apologizes, he’s had too much today and is having some ginger-orange-smoothie thing as he sits opposite me at the downtown cafe where we arranged to meet. He’s had a haircut so I did not recognize him from his author photo and thus we’ve been awkwardly sitting separately for ten minutes while I looked at him every few seconds and decided whether to approach the newly shorn, grey haired and, yes, tweedy gentleman at a table ten feet away.
Once we are situated Carse talks in dense paragraphs, and our conversation goes nowhere near the familiar topics of the mechanics of publishing, the grind of book promotion, or the craft of writing. Retired from the post he held for 30 years as head of the religious studies department at NYU, Carse decided to try his hand at writing a murder mystery set over the course of an academic year, threw in some very complex puzzles (New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz is a friend), and wove in plenty of drama about a thinly veiled university community with a square at its center. He was popular during his teaching days that students who took his classes were known as “Carseketeers,” and though he taught his last class in 1995, he’s still thinking deeply and urgently about the place of the university in contemporary American society.
Carse worries about the pressures on the university from the outside—taking research money from major corporations and the department of defense, for example—and about internal conflicts between professors and students. The killer in his book, known as The Puzzler for the difficult clues left at every crime scene (Carse made a special puzzle for Lit Hub that you can find at the end of this interview), is driven by the same issues Carse bemoans. “That’s another element in the book. I don’t think anyone’s going to make much of this but for me it’s a very big thing. The beauty of the classroom. If you think about it, there’s something inherently beautiful about an argument well presented, about the use of language, about the rhythm of a class,” Carse says.
I get excited at this notion. There are lots of classes inscribed on my brain from my grad school days, but I tell him about another class. “There are books that are dear to me, not because I love the book, but because I attended a lecture that was so fabulous that it’s still in my mind,” I say. “William Dean Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes is one of those books, not a book I love but it was assigned by one of my favorite English professors. I read it in his class and he gave a lecture about the Gilded Age and wealth inequality and how wealth inequality was experienced. It opened my eyes to what wealth inequality meant.”
“Boy did he have his finger on it,” Carse says.
“Howells wasn’t a great writer, but he was a great sociologist. He understood class in a way a lot of writers do not,” I say.
“One of the things that worries me right now is, think about it, how many college graduates would you expect to even know who William Dean Howells is?” Carse asks.
“Zero,” I say.
“Isn’t that right? What I find right now is a kind of emptying of our education,” Carse says. “What’s happening is that universities are selling themselves as labels that we call degrees. I did a lot of graduate work at Yale. That was a hundred years ago and so forth. It just was a place to study. They accepted every other student. It was no big deal. Even Harvard did at that time. Now, it’s like you wear a badge or something like that.”
This is worlds away from his descriptions of the university during the period he studied and taught: ancient and early modern times. To talk to Carse is to get an immersive crash course on the history of ancient thought. “First Christians get in the act with the Greeks. Then 1190 I think is the year that the first university is founded in Bologna. By that time, there was an intensity of thought, of creative and original thought,” Carse says, just warming up. “The important thing about it was that it was unsupervised thought. It was thought that began with a question and not with a conclusion. Whereas the opposite was happening both in the east and in Islam. I have a couple friends who are scholars of the Islamic era. I was in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies the whole time I was [at NYU],” Carse says, and I nod as if I was born knowing what was happening in the Islamic era.
“A lot of my friends were specialists in this area. They pointed out that there was a brief period where the Muslims mostly settled Spain and moved west and brought the Greeks with them. I don’t know if you know that, but Islam salvaged Greek thought,” Carse continues while I’m still nodding, because yes, I know all about how Islam salvaged Greek thought. (What? Did I know that? I used to know it, I think.) “We wouldn’t have known of Plato. Actually we would have known one thing of Plato, but one useless dialogue, if it weren’t for the Muslims. Then their world changed, for very complicated reasons. I’m not even sure I’ve begun to understand it. They became focused on the Talmud, on the Quran, but the Quran was a finished document. Contrast to the Talmud, which is . . . ”
I’ll stop before our fascinating exchange on Talmudic scholarship, but you get the drift. Carse is a deep well and an engaging conversation partner. Rarely do I walk away from an interview feeling like I’ve learned so much. When I ask him the standard “What crime fiction do you read?” question, he thinks for a moment and answers that he’s been reading Henning Mankell in German (he likes to do most of his mystery reading in other languages, though we agree the Germans are not great producers of crime fiction, especially compared to the French). Carse is also a sculptor in his free time, but I don’t get a chance to look at his artwork on the laptop he has with him.
Before we part I ask him a question that’s nagged me for years. “Why are all books about universities satires?” PhDeath is as much academic satire as murder mystery.
Carse says, “There are a couple of reasons for that. One is universities aren’t very serious places.”
“Despite what they do?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “And almost everyone is a nerd or a former nerd. I’m talking about faculty now mainly but students, too.”
“Well,” I say, thinking about the people I attended college with, “some students are really temporary nerds.”
“That’s right,” Carse says. “All of my colleagues, they were birthright members of Mensa. They were the smartest kids in their classes, and they were abused because of that. They have very low self-esteem and very delicate egos. Then they’re odd. They don’t know how to dress well. I find that very charming.”
“Here’s an anecdote about academics,” I tell him. “In my second year of graduate school, I went to a beginning of the year mixer. One of my professors, who was a very nice man but socially awkward, was there. He came up to me and my friend, a fellow graduate student, and talked to us for a few minutes. Then about five minutes passed. He looked at his watch and said, ‘Well this has been nice, but I see somebody I know and our time is up.’ Obviously somebody had talked to him about socializing and told him that about after five minutes, you should circulate and go talk to somebody else. He took it literally.”
Carse laughs. “They’re a community of oddballs. I adore it, I love it. I couldn’t have had a better life. I started school at five and I never left. I love these people but they’re weird. Then there are the adolescents who are acting up and doing weird stuff, a lot of drinking and partying and all that. That’s okay, too, to a degree but it’s not the kind of thing you find in a corporation. It doesn’t have that top-down order to it. There’s a degree of chaos that filters all the way through to the end. It’s very hard to write seriously about that, especially when you have such wonderful characters.”
* * * *
Dr. James Carse’s Literary Hub Puzzle
1. The only letter that comes with a puff.
2. The only letter that is part of a building.
3. The only letter found seven times in its own clue.
4. The only letter that goes in all four directions without touching itself.
5. The only letter you can go to for a swim.
6. The only letter found on a football field.
7. The only letter that balances half itself on its head.
8. The only letter doubles the one it follows.
9. The only letter that can be a complete sentence in a thriller.
10. The only letter that halves the one it follows.
11. The only letter you can have for a special breakfast.
Finished? Bravo! or Brava! Now . . . bottoms up!
[solution: KNOW THYSELF]