Every professor learns the hard way that scholarship does not prepare the scholar for classroom teaching. David Nolta's first novel hinges on an equally reliable proposition: scholarship, no matter how brilliant, does not make the scholar well-equipped for love or marriage. The murder of beautiful Virginia Vanderlyn, wife of one of Clare College's most distinguished professors, is a brutal instance of the sorry state of affairs in the academy. Despite the high concentration of brain matter on one small campus, no one (or so it would seem) least of all Virginia's archaeologist husband knows that she is dead and buried under the floorboards of the Vanderlyn mansion until 10 years after the deed is done. These various proofs of idiocy do not, however, add up to a typical satire on academic life. The subtitle of Grave Circle, "An Ivory Tower Mystery," invites the reader to think of the book as a murder mystery; but at the same time "Ivory Tower" promises a comedy of manners, a promise fulfilled by the author's affectionately tongue-in-cheek portrait of New England college life.
There is nothing satirical about the novel's heroine, either, apart from her outlandish name. Nolta presents a vivid portrait of the inscrutable Antigone Musing, professor of chemistry, as she sits musing (no other word for it) on the arrival of her brother Hiawatha. Nolta almost immediately undercuts the pomposity of these names with the more manageable nicknames Hi and Tig. Such good-natured abbreviations fairly sum up the delightful psychology of the novel: everything falsely inflated gets the stuffing knocked out of it, including both the inevitable love story and the unexpected family romance that unfold. Making their amateur investigations of Virginia Vanderlyn's murder, Hi and Tig form a fascinating, if ineffectual, duo of novice detectives. And as the mystery nears its suspenseful climax, Grave Circle summons the strange and satisfying feeling that something much more is afoot here than the "game." To try to name that feeling would be academic. Michael Alec Rose is an associate professor at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music.