One of the great rushing noises in the background of life these days is the sound of all fiction being sucked into genre, particularly into America’s favorite genre: the crime story.
When my good friend Robert “Bud” Roper, a successful writer of Qual. Lit. novels and high-class nonfiction with a master’s from UC Berkeley, announced that he had written a murder mystery called The Savage Professor, I was shocked—shocked to hear about it. This was the respected author of Now the Drum of War, about Walt Whitman in the Civil War, and of the forthcoming Nabokov in America, the latter bearing some 50 pages of academically certifying footnotes. How could such a man be descending to crime fiction?
When Bud announced that the aforesaid murder mystery starred a slightly overweight, wine-sipping, BMW-driving retired professor of epidemiology, I was even shockeder—because that person is me. Or he’s more or less me. Bud and I used to hang out together in Berkeley in the 1990s, when he was supporting a teenage daughter on a writer’s shoestring income (I admire any father who brings up a teenage daughter alone), and I was an epidemiologist beating my head against the AIDS epidemic. Some of the studies I was working on in that era—of street kids, of the San Francisco homeless, and of various Asian brothel cultures—seem to have ended up in the portfolio of Antony Landau, the somewhat dented English-born, retired epidemiologist and potential serial killer of The Savage Professor. Leaving aside the serial killings, the savage professor is quite a bit like me.
It’s always a trip to be written about.
“Of course it’s not you,” the writer says, guiltily. “It’s, erm, a composite. Bits of, you know… different, er… you know, people….” And so forth. It’s true it’s not you. It’s just a character who has bits of you stuck on his surface, giving forth a kind of cracked-mirror glimpse of the parts of you that you probably don’t want to think about.
It reminds me of another experience of modest media celebrity, a time when I was the presenter of a British Channel 4 documentary on AIDS. One day I overheard the producer talking to the director between shots: “Can’t you clean him up a bit?” she wondered.
With all that in mind, I can strongly recommend The Savage Professor, not so much for its protagonist (though he’s actually pretty cute) as for the really entertaining takes on Berkeley town, and Berkeley gown, in which the murder mystery is embedded.
This is the Berkeley of “goat cheese from that little ranch in Bolinas,” of “eight new pinots from Oregon, a clutch of South African syrahs, six award-winning Argentinian malbecs. Raised at such-and-such a height above sea-level, by fourth-generation vintners in alluvial soil of large granulometry, six months in American oak, three in French.”
And this is the Berkeley of a certain vegetable store where Landau meets “five hundred other Berkeleyans of roughly his vintage, finicky eaters and cookers all, wrinkled and gray-haired now, the rampart-rushers of ’68 gone cranky, gone peculiar. In the narrow aisles of the grungy but bursting veg market, one had face-offs with angry Free Speech grandmas, all of them intent on getting their own stuff right now, right now.”
Recognize that Berkeley?
Roper (it can now be revealed) has himself taught in at least one of America’s finest academic institutions, and his portrait of Berkeley gown, seen through Landau’s eyes, is… well, let’s just say he’s unimpressed.
Here’s Landau at a dinner party, seated next to a famous professor of Bible studies: “probably the grandest panjundrum in the room, a short man with the face of a sleepy Bacchus, a winner of many prizes himself, recent re-translator of the five books of Moses. Landau had been seated beside him at a dinner a few years ago. It had been the impossibility of discussing anything not about the man or his work that had impressed Landau, who foolishly had broached an unrelated subject only to have the grandee fall into perfect silence, as one does when a child says something impossibly foolish.”
Recognize that Berkeley, too?
Having wallowed narcissistically in the pleasure of (more or less) being written about, I can report that, while I, generally speaking, am indifferent to murder mysteries, this story very quickly took over and I stopped looking for bits of myself.
For enthusiasts of gore, there is plenty of it in The Savage Professor (amazing what a mild-mannered Jewish writer has in his subconscious). But the pleasure of this novel is in the wised-up and amused version of Berkeley town and gown (also of Oakland, once in a while) that the author puts into the interior monologue of his antihero Landau. This is a witty and literate book, as befits an accomplished novelist and literary biographer, and the pleasure is in the text, from paragraph to paragraph. It’s a thinking man’s murder mystery, the kind that would have probably appealed (and here comes the blurb that won’t help the book) to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, a well-known admirer of the crime genre. Professor Landau, let it be known, can quote Derrida!
Finally, I attempted to interview Bud about the book, but he, with typical writerly cunning, ended up mostly interviewing me. I did find out that it was fun for him to be back in Berkeley after 12 years away, because now Berkeley had become strange to him and as a writer he was able to look at it with a purpose. He also said he was just back from a crime writers’ conference where he had newly discovered a whole subgenre, called “cozies,” of nondisturbing crime novels. Bud and I looked at each other and agreed, silently, that this was not a genre for Bud. At this point his wife, Mary, a distinguished historian and former Berkeley faculty member, came in and reminded us that the Oscars were on TV.
So, Bud, here’s my belated permission to use me as a character in your next book, the sequel to The Savage Professor. In this next story, Antony Landau will go hunting for the mysterious killer of a crime writer who has portrayed him, Landau, as an overweight, wine-swilling, skirt-chasing, more-than-slightly-dented, Derrida-quoting ex-epidemiologist and who has subsequently been hacked to death with a cheese grater in the basement of the Monterey Market.
Wonder who could have done that?
Andrew Moss, Ph.D. ’79, is emeritus professor of epidemiology at UCSF, but he’d rather have been a writer.
Robert Roper’s Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War was published by Walker and Company in 2009. The Savage Professor is just out from Asahina and Wallace. Roper’s Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.