James Tate Hill’s first novel Academy Gothic is a mystery. I mean that literally and figuratively. The plot of the novel centers on the death of a dean of a failing college. The protagonist, a legally blind and extremely witty, kind-of-college lecturer, Tate Cowlishaw investigates the crime, utilizing the help of a varied and intriguing cast of characters, from the dwarf police officer with a passion for theater to the Indian man who owns the run-down motel in which Tate lives. And, there are even ghosts (and some brief nods towards vampires). Cowlishaw only has his job because he may or may not (it’s actually may not) have paranormal powers. So it is, quite literally, a mystery.
But it’s also a mystery on so many other levels. This books impacts you in mysterious ways. That may sound a little intense, but I could not put this book down. It’s fast, it blasts you with details, with events; it keeps you on your toes until the very last chapter. It’s hilarious. It’s deadpan. It’s serious and sometimes heartbreaking. I felt weird reading it in public because of all the reactions I had to it: gasps, chuckles, all that rapid page turning. It’s a mystery how this book captivated me in so many different ways. The answer to this mystery lies in the clever and careful way J.T. Hill wrote this book.
The novel opens as Cowlishaw literally stumbles across the very dead body of Dean Simpkins. And, despite his blindness, Cowlishaw knows that usually people cannot shoot themselves three times in the head. But there are definite problems hounding Parshall College, and maybe the death of the dean can finally get everything straightened out. There are many tensions working in this novel: some of them are comic, like the relationship between the colorful cast of characters, but others that are extremely serious, like questions of the nature of higher education (especially very, very malfunctioning higher education) and, of course, about human life.
From there, the novel progresses much like any type of crime/mystery would. It quickly introduces the cast of characters, a wide variety of personalities who can sometimes be extreme, but are also types that we can recognize in ourselves and our friends. We have the main cast, the other instructors are Parshall who all have their reasons for disliking each other and for wanting the dean dead. We also get the supporting cast of a reporter, police officers, among others. Each character is given a specific detail so they stay fresh and distinct in our minds. If this book was a film, we would instantly be able to tell who each character was based upon these precise details.
On the topic of film, if I had to describe this book neatly—though I think it avoids that sort of thing—I would say that it is like reading an exquisite noire flick. It has everything such a film would need. There is the detective; in this case, the unlikely Tate Cowlishaw, but his clever responses and dry humor seem to align perfectly with a more traditional figure of a man in a fedora. There are, of course, some seductive ladies: the femme fatale-esque Mollie DuFrange and the charming blonde Carly Worth. There is plenty of murder. But also present are elements of film that are harder to incorporate into the written word. For example, Hill exercises an amazing control over lighting. This is mostly done, so well, via Cowlishaw’s blindness, which reads both as hilarious as it is the basis for his razor wit, but also heartbreaking as we come to realize what exactly he can see and cannot see and how he copes with both. Finally, the book even features a very present narrative voice. Cowlishaw speaks in a way that could live as comfortably over a sweeping musical interlude at the start of the movie as it does in the novel, but it lacks any cheesiness and isn’t over-bearing.
A lot of this novel’s success, is because it is so much more than a mystery or noire. Despite dealing with some larger-than-life issues and having comedic or even almost-archetypal characters, Academy Gothic is scathingly honest about institutions, human nature and needs. This book will hold onto you until the end because it is a fun read but also an extremely thoughtful one. In fact, the serious moments carry more impact because of how they are staged between moments of wit, cleverness, and comedy. This book will never cease to surprise its reader. Sometimes it is with one of Cowlishaw’s numerous insights, or perhaps because of another twist or turn in the case. It will also surprise you with its big heart; Hill is never cruel nor does he judge any of his characters, even if their actions may be ridiculous or criminal. Throughout, Hill is careful and calibrates the text expertly. Perhaps this most stuck out to me in the ending. It was unexpected, but it was perfect. It brought me back to the beginning of the novel and reminded me of all the little details I may have forgotten throughout the reading. At the conclusion, the reader instantly wants to start the novel over again, to find all the little connections, to study the text as carefully as Cowlishaw studied the crime, as carefully as Hill crafted his story.