The Readers (full text)


Posted on: Thu, 10/10/2019 - 16:26 By: the-dilettante

The academic life aims at a certain kind of dignity. Certainly that's the impression you get if you hang out with academics. They take themselves and their place in society seriously, and are often to reluctant to laugh at a joke that's not sufficiently highbrow. The reluctance to laugh freely is always what made me suspicious of academics. What kind of person, I wondered, would give up one of life's greatest pleasures merely for the sake of some imagined social prestige? Taking oneself lightly is the door to so much of life's joy, and I am suspicious of an entire profession that is apparently resolute to avoid entering that door or evening peering through the keyhole.

The dignity of the academic life was not much manifest in the appearance of Professor Andrew Gardner, whose office I was in at that moment. Maybe the colors he wore that day were a little too bright, or maybe his nose was a little too ugly. Probably, though, it was because he was lying crumpled, in a heap, on the floor of his office, dead as a dissertation. People talk about the calm dignity of the dead, but that is another thing I'm not often able to agree with. In death, I see not dignity, but rather nothingness. I hope that there is more, that Gardner's spirit had flown away on angel's wings, and that his body possessed the dignity of a former soul rather than the absurdity of a current slab of meat. I hope that I can convince myself of that someday, but so far I feel only nothing.

But it was the cause, rather than the outcome, of Professor Gardner's entrance into the afterlife that was my most pressing concern at that moment. Detectives like me are not paid to speculate metaphysically. There was no sign of a struggle or forced entry in the professor's office, and there was no blood or obvious injury on his body to indicate a cause of death. He wore his formal clothes neatly.

The only striking aspect of his appearance was his lips - they appeared darkly stained, almost black even though the body was reportedly freshly deceased and such discoloration wouldn't be expected to occur naturally yet. I remembered one time when I was a schoolboy, when I had chewed on a pen compulsively until it had broken in my mouth, spilling rancid black ink with jarring suddeness all over my mouth and lips. Gardner could have been the victim of this same mishap, although some ink wouldn't have killed him, and I didn't think it was ink anyway. First of all, a professor must become an expert in pens after a long career stuck in an office, and must learn to avoid such childish problems. More than that, somehow the coloration didn't look like ink - it looked somehow more sickeningly evil.

Detective work is a matter of anomaly detection, and then inversion. You first find what is abnormal in a situation, and then you work backwards to what could have caused the abnormality. The anomaly detection lies in the realm of statistical reasoning (consult a good stats textbook if you doubt me), and the inversion is just the same idea as mathematical inversion like one might do to a matrix in a math class. Other scientific rules apply too, like Occam's razor, telling us that parsimonious explanations are better than convoluted ones.

The hard part about finding what is abnormal in a crime scene is that you have to have some notion of what is normal, so you know what to compare to. Normal has never been my specialty, but I've gained what may be called an amateur's understanding of it. When I looked around Gardner's office, I tried to surmise what normal might have looked like and how what I saw might differ from normality. Gardner being dead was the first and primary abnormality, and his lips being mostly black rather than fully lip-colored was the second one. I saw that the window was ajar, but this was not surprising given our recently mild weather. I started to imagine an assailant climbing up the four stories to Gardner's office and striking him dead just as Gardner had been in the middle of applying his Gothic lipstick. The scenario didn't seem likely.

I looked at his desk. It was a mess. Books and papers and trinkets lie together haphazardly, intertwined as if engaging in an orgy of informational copulation. Had the desk been ransacked, or was this the normal state of disarray for our absentminded professor? I got closer to the desk to get a better look. The beat cop on the scene was not impressed.

"What are you looking at all that for?"

"Maybe what he was working on was significant somehow. Maybe it'll give us an idea of why someone wanted him dead." That was possible enough. People have been killed for industrial secrets before, like chemical formulas or nuclear bomb blueprints. "What was he a professor of anyhow?"

"History," the beat cop said with a smirk. "Think someone killed cause he knew too much about George Washington?"

I ignored him, but he was right. Who would want to kill a history professor? As I looked over his desk, I saw all kinds of texts, but none that seemed to hint at a motive for murder. A few related to Thomas Aquinas, including one about Aquinas's theory of aesthetics. It hardly seemed like something that would make anyone rich. Besides Aquinas, I saw references to a smorgasbord of other medieval topics, including things like family life under Charlemagne and something about the relations between Catholic religious orders.

In the corner of all the books and printouts there was a handwritten note:

"You need to reconsider the publication question. This is NOT A JOKE. LB"

So someone was taking some history publication pretty seriously. Would a "publication question" be worth killing over? And would a killer leave portentious notes about his motive on the desk of the deceased? Maybe it would be easy to find out. I had noticed on the way in that the name on the office next door was Lawrence Bartram. We might have found an information mine already, and I strode unhesitatingly into LB's office to start digging.

 

Lawrence Bartram was an older, heavyset man who looked like he had advanced so far into understanding other worlds and faraway times that he had forgotten how to get along in this one. His eyes looked unfocused as if his everyday surroundings were too mundane to spend any time examining them. He sat motionless in his chair and spoke slowly and deliberately. I thought him quite pompous at first, but his expression of regret at his colleague's death seemed sincere and I tried to treat him as a human rather than only a suspect. He told us that he was actually close with Gardner, and that they had many things in commmon in their attitudes and behaviors.

"Of course, I'm the one who found him and reported the death," he was saying, with the slow drawl that teachers who love their own voices tend to develop. "I had been retrieving some documents from my mailbox as I walked by his office, and out of the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of his body lying the floor. Thinking that he might be ill, I let myself in to his office immediately, and quickly discovered that he had no pulse or breath. Of course I called the police immediately and let them do their work. I have cancelled all of my meetings for this afternoon and I am, sirs, at your service for however I may provide aid to your investigation."

He talked like an invitation to a cotillion. Some Americans have never gotten over envy of the aristocratic British and the way they are philologically advanced enough to use words like "ill" and "aid." Besides that he had a textbook writer's habit of never using contractions. I pressed him on his stiltedness. "Your statement, I might say, seems more than a little rehearsed." Guilty people often practice their statements, but if they need to rehearse, their veneer of innocence is brittle and they fall apart as soon as you begin to press them.

"Well, you know, this is a common reaction that professors get. We spend so much of our time carefully putting phrases together, whether for the preparation of publications, or for the clarity required to extemporaneously teach complex concepts." Either he had rehearsed this statement too, or he was actually as articulate as he claimed. I abandoned that line of questioning because when he said the word "publication" I remembered the note signed "LB" in Gardner's office.

"Professor Bartram, did you write a note to Gardner about a publication question of some kind?"

He was clearly taken aback. "Well, you see, I... You are rather direct aren't you? Yes, there's no point denying it. Andrew Gardner was on the editorial board of a top university press. He was trusted enough that they were planning to let him choose what the press was going to publish next. He didn't have any manuscripts of his own ready at the time, so he was looking elsewhere for manuscripts that were worthy enough to be published with his press."

"And did you have a manuscript that you wanted to get published with his outfit?" As usual I tried to get straight to the point.

He hesitated again. "Yes, I did in fact. I have a monograph that I believe is of the highest quality, about the oral histories of the indigenous tribes of Borneo. I have 'shopped it around,' so to speak, with several publishers, but I have been so far unable to generate any interest." He finally moved a little, leaning to the left to grab an unruly pile of papers. "This is a printout of my manuscript so far," he told us with an almost endearing level of pride. "Let me show you the acknowledgements section." He turned the pages in the style of many of the old people I have known, licking his index finger and using the moisture to gain traction on the corner of the page. More of these professorial affectations, I thought.

"You can see here in the acknowledgements section that I thank Gardner for his helpful suggestions. He read my manuscript and gave me positive feedback last year," Bartram told me.

"And did you 'shop it around' to Gardner and his press? Ask him to publish it as a book?" Things were starting to make sense.

Bartram was no longer hesitating, apparently having decided that now that he had started to share some of these details, he might as well share all of them forthrightly. Maybe he was emboldened by the pride of showing off his research. "I did. He told me he would consider my work, but eventually told me that the prospects were not good. Evidently he did not estimate its quality highly enough," he said with a momentary disdainful smirk.

"Would you consider this a high stakes situation?"

"These are the highest stakes we ever really encounter in our academic world. Publication with Gardner's press could be a crowning achievement for an academic career, or a remarkably auspicious start to a student's career." With that, his unfocused eyes started to look shifty.

I pressed on this. "Why do you mention students?"

He could see that he had to answer. "There are two students who were working with Gardner especially closely. Both are in their final year of finishing their doctoral studies. Both have excellent dissertations that could potentially be published either in prestigious journals or even as books. Though, getting published is one thing, and getting published with Gardner's press is another thing entirely. Both of them were hopeful that Gardner would choose his manuscript to publish."

"What were these students' names?" I had my notebook ready to jot down the answer.

"Mislavsky and Edelman. We had a formal habit of going by last names around here. Those two started the program together and have become close friends over their years of study. I believe they are roommates now, in fact."

"So were you referring to your work or their work when you wrote a note asking Gardner to reconsider?" Finally I was ready to get the skinny on the note.

"Gardner did not tell me about his final decision related to the students' work. However, he told me recently that he didn't want to publish either of their dissertations, and instead wanted to look elsewhere for a better manuscript." Bartram seemed exhausted with all this storytelling.

"Why did you care whether he reconsidered about publication? And why did you emphasize in your note that this issue was not a joke?" I asked, trying still to be polite.

Bartram's mien changed. He leaned in closer to me and started speaking more softly, almost conspiratorially, looking at me with eyes that suddenly had a laser focus.

"The truth is, I had begun to feel worried for Gardner's safety recently. There were, well, hints that those two students wished him to come to harm."

"Hints?" I asked. "What hints?"

"Well, it seemed like they were observing him far too closely. I saw them watching him in our parking garage. It seemed to me they were observing what time he usually left the office, where he parked, and what his usual routine was for going and coming. Even more strange, I saw them doing the same type of creepy observation in our reading room. They were watching him as he was innocently reading a book. I thought I saw them taking notes - imagine that, taking notes about how someone reads a book. Again, I saw them observing him far too closely one day at lunch, looking at what he ate and how he ate."

"That is a little weird," I had to agree. But does that really point to them planning a murder?"

Bartram's voice got even softer as he continued. "It's not just that. I overheard them once, talking about murder. Mislavsky was doing most of the talking. I heard him say 'kiling him that way will lead to the whole building burning down and depriving the world of a great book.' I remember those exact words. Depriving the world of a book - it must refer to his dissertation getting refused for publication so most of the world wouldn't get a chance to read it."

I nodded. I could see what he meant. "On the other hand," I pointed out, "the building didn't burn down. It sounds like Mislavsky was talking about torching his office, and causing the whole building to burn down. Whatever killed Gardner hasn't burned down the building." I didn't want to reveal anything about the investigation or my theories, so I was coy as I continued. "Maybe he got hit on the head, causing a dark contusion on his lips, or maybe there was some disease he had that caused problems with blood flow, or..."

"Or?" Bartram interjected. "Well isn't it obvious that it was poison? Gardner must have eaten or drunk some nasty concoction that left that dark residue on his lips. You must have checked his tongue and found the same dark discoloration? I mean, that's what I assume," he added quickly. "Those students had been observing him while he ate lunch. Maybe they found a way to access the lunch he bought today and poison it. He ate or drank something that had some terrible chemical in it."

"Could be." I continued my strategic coyness. "Professor Bartram, you said that Mislavsky and Edelman lived together nearby. Do you know their address? I would love to pay them a visit."

He gave us the address and we left him, with hasty offers of thanks and condolences. I turned to my partner after we had walked out. "Let's see what these students have to say." We started the walk to the students' apartment, and got a call from the beat cop on the case. They had looked at Gardner's tongue and seen some of the same black discoloration that was visible on his lips, especially near the front of the tongue. The coroner was not done with the autopsy but the initial evidence indicated that we were dealing with poison, just as Bartram had said with such certainty.

 

"So what's your impression so far?" my partner asked earnestly.

"Bartram's an odd duck for sure." I thought about the case against him. "There are some suspicious things about him. He seemed very sure about the poison diagnosis and the black tongue, which we hadn't seen yet. When a bystander knows more than you do, you have to raise your eyebrows a little. His spurned manuscript gives him plenty of motive for revenge, and his nearby office gives him decent opportunity. And anyway, he was trying to give us evidence about other people who were supposedly guilty, which is exactly what a guilty person does."

"It's also exactly what an innocent person does." My partner didn't miss a beat.

"You're right about that," I acknowledged. The inversion problem of detective work was just as hard as the inversion problem of mathematics. Multiple inputs could lead to the same output, so recovering an input given an output can be a fool's errand. A man who is seen tossing a bloody bag the size of a human body into the dumpster in the middle of the night could easily be a murderer, or could just as easily by working hard to make his beef packaging startup profitable. The stories we conjure in our imaginations to explain things are rarely sufficient for the complexity of the universe, and truth has more danger than fiction.

"Of course I'm not ready to finger Bartram yet," I explained. "That's why we're going to talk to these students."

It was very considerate of Mislavsky and Edelman to live together and therefore expedite our investigation process. Their apartment was in a dingy brick building with an overly ambitious sign in front labelling it "The Westover," as if it were a gentleman's country estate or ever needed to be referred to as anything other than "that eyesore over there."

They were on the fourth floor. Their elevator had one of those accordion-style doors that I didn't know anyone had built since the 1920's and it rattled as if it hadn't been serviced since then. Writing dissertations about medieval history apparently wasn't getting its due recognition from the free market.

They stood together at the door to open it for us. They were expecting us to some degree, since they had heard on the social media/text messaging grapevine that something had happened to Gardner.

Their apartment was about what you might expect from a couple of bachelor graduate students. There were few decorations, many books, old furniture, and not many signs of visitors. I noticed that their kitchen was pretty well stocked.

We sat alone with Edelman first, in their shared bedroom. He was tall and lanky, shifty-eyed and solemn. I thought about the inversion function again. Shifty eyes, I reminded myself, could be caused by guilt, or they could be caused simply by garden-variety social dysfunction. Something about Edelman seemed to fit the stereotypical idea of a social outcast-turned-murderer, but then again the universe had a way of playing against stereotypes.

"what was the topic of your dissertation?" Just like with Bartram, I wanted to get straight to the point, and in a murder related to publishing dissertations, this seemed like the fastest way there.

"Well uh, I guess," Edelman started. For a guy who had been working on one doctoral dissertation for years, it seemed pretty hard for him to describe what its topic was. He didn't have Bartram's professorial glibness, or at least not yet. He finally managed to spit it out. "It's about family life during Charlemagne's time. How did husbands and wives relate to each other and split up their tasks, how did they raise kids, what food they ate, what did their houses look like, and that sort of thing."

"Pretty interesting," I said sincerely. "Were you hopeful about Gardner helping you get it published as a book?"

"Of course. He had made what I thought were some promises about getting it out there. But I guess he didn't mean them because he told me a couple weeks ago that it wouldn't work out. I couldn't believe that he had strung me along like that." His face shoed anger and frustration. I had noticed before that graduate school was a peculiar experience for students who live completely at the mercy of their professors. To have that kind of power over a student and to provoke their ire could be a recipe for murder, I reflected.

"You mentioned that some of your dissertation is about medieval food. Is that why your kitchen has so many tools and spices and interesting smells?" I wanted to start to explore the poison angle.

He seemed surprised by the question. "Well, yes, that's true. I cook sometimes as a hobby and to be healthy and to distract from things at school. Of course I'm interested in medieval things, so I try to recreate medieval food sometimes. I've learned about how they ate and how they poisoned each other."

My ears and eyebrows perked up upon hearing that. "Excuse me?" I asked. "Did you say something about poison?"

He blushed furiously. "What I mean is, they often didn't follow good food preparation practices back then. They didn't wash their hands. They tried to keep meat for too long. They weren't able to refrigerate eggs. Foodborne diseases were very common, and diarrhea was a leading cause of death for centuries. They weren't aware of the negative effects of certain herbs. They were trying to cook for each other, but sometimes they ended up just poisoning each other."

"I see..." I didn't know quite how to respond to that so I just went for it. "Mr. Edelman, did you do anything to harm Professor Gardner?"

"What? No of course not. What? How could you? No way." He stammered out a response and I could tell we had flustered him badly. "I can't talk about this anymore." And with that he simply walked out of the room, leaving me and my partner there alone, mildly shocked.

We heard voices from the other room, but I couldn't make out what was being said. Clearly Edelman and Mislavsky were talking about us. I was willing to let them talk, and anyway it gave me some time to chat with partner a little in hushed tones to be sure they couldn't hear us.

"What do ya think of that?" I asked, smiling.

"It's strange that he would mention poison." My partner was thinking hard about it. "He has motive and I suppose his medieval kitchen must have something that could poison someone, as he pointed out himself. He doesn't seem particularly innocent, but we don't really have any evidence yet. Let's see what Mislavsky has to say."

"Yes let's." I had a feeling we were making progress. I loved how investigations could grow like that: you start with a little worm on a hook, and a few conversations later you were reeling in a shark.

 

Mislavsky was different from his roommate in a few important ways. He didn't have the nervous fidgets of a typical maladjusted history student. His hair was styled and his clothes looked expensive and harmonious as if he actually knew how to dress and put effort into it. He was able to make eye contact and grip my hand firmly to shake it.

Psychological profiling is not as exact a science as people make it out to be. People think that all sciences should be deterministic: that if someone was killed in a particular way, that they must have been killed by a particular kind of person. If there is evidence X at the crime scene, then it must be a person of type X who did the crime. In fact the world is much more variegated and complex than that would make it seem.

The naive view would have been that Mislavsky was a well-adjusted, good-looking, and successful young man, so he would never be the type of frustrated loner who would commit a senseless murder. The naive view is not always correct.

As we sat down with him, I started thinking through the angles on what to ask him about. There are interrogators who are able to be subtle and gentle, guiding suspects through questioning like a master shepherd guiding a flock toward greener pastures. The suspects follow those masters unquestioningly, if a little stubbornly. I had not mastered that art and so I just laid the cards on the table.

"What is the explanation for you and Edelman following Professor Gardner around and observing him?" I blurted out.

He was taken aback, but he recovered, smiling softly and even chuckling a little. "So someone noticed us. I see. Well I'll be straight with you. Edelman and I felt frustrated about our lack of progress. Edelman tried to get me heated up about doing something to make Gardner sick. We wouldn't have ever killed the guy, we just thought that if he were sick for a while, we'd get a break from his demands about our schedules, and anyway maybe it would cut him down to size a little."

He said all this to us with a straight face and without breaking eye contact, as if he weren't deeply ashamed of planning to harm a human being. I started psychologically profiling him again. Maladjusted losers sometimes commit murder to strike out at a world in which they had failed. Handsome confident men, by contrast, sometimes commit murder because of their certainty that they deserve the world to always bend to their will and their delusion that they are intelligent enough to get away with it. But of course I couldn't rely on that profile either. At some point I would need evidence and certainty of my own.

"You two were thinking of poisoning him?" I asked.

"Edelman was," he said, deflecting the blame. "He was going to put something in his food. But he always buys his lunches and eats alone and we couldn't think of a simple way to get access to his meals. I gave up on the idea, and I had no idea Edelman had continued to think about it."

I paused, thinking of where to go next. Denial is easy enough when there is no evidence pointint to you. Deflection is also natural. I thought back to Gardner's cluttered desk. What was it I had seen there? The beat cop had mocked my interest in his dusty historical treatises. But I knew that for these academics, dusty treatises constitute their world. An end to the possibility of publishing a manuscript is a little part of their world dying. The effects of their world were all texts, and it could be that the causes of their world and their actions were texts too. What text could cause someone to die?

"What was the topic of your dissertation?" I asked.

Just like Bartram, he was eager to talk about this. His eyes lit up a little.

"Well," he began, already seeming to channel Bartram's pomposity. "It's about the diplomatic relations between the different monastic orders in the medieval period."

"You mean the different types of Catholic monks?" I asked. Academic research was one of those rare things that managed to be extremely interesting and extremely inconsequential at the same time.

"That's right," he affirmed. "I do a case study of some interactions between the Dominicans and the Franciscans."

I looked over at his bookshelf. I saw some titles that I didn't recognize, and some that I did. When I had been in college, I had loved reading Umberto Eco books, and I saw several there on his shelf. And that was the moment I solved the case.

"I see Umberto Eco on your shelf. Have you ever read The Name of the Rose?" I asked. At the same moment, I pulled out my phone and surreptitiously texted one of the beat cops: "were there black marks on Gardner's fingers?" Mislavsky started talking about Eco and The Name of the Rose as I did so.

"Eco created worlds from words. His erudition was so great... if you think of an idea as a brushstroke, some authors make miniatures, but Eco made murals. You could get lost in the great, marvelous textual worlds he created."

"And you did get lost in one of them," I muttered, looking at the positive reply I had just gotten from the beat cop.

"Huh?" he said, feigning innocence, but showing signs of panic.

"I like Eco too," I said. "I read The Name of the Rose in college. I watched the movie too. Anything with Sean Connery is good in my book," I added, thinking to myself that anything with a sex scene made entirely from literary and scriptural references is also worth reading.

"The Name of the Rose creates a remarkable world," I continued. "A snowy mountaintop, a huge monastery, a wealthy order of Dominicans. Preparation for an important diplomatic event, interrupted by a gruesome murder. The Dominicans call in a Franciscan to help solve the murder, which then turns into a long, symbolic spree."

"You know your medieval murder mysteries," Mislavsky said, trying to pass off a nonchalant chuckle.

I was emboldened by his evident nervousness. "I see your copy of The Name of the Rose is tattered and you've clearly read it often. And your dissertation is about it in some way: the relations of Dominicans and Franciscans are central to the novel. Eco said that the first several dozen pages are boring because they are the reader's penance. Lots of people never get past those parts. But I got through my penance. And having gotten through, I learned of good and evil. I know," I said, looking him square in the eye, "who the murderer is, and I know how he did it."

I didn't wait for my partner to react, or for Mislavsky to make excuses. "The killer was immersed for his whole life in books. He got lost in the world of the texts. Like many intellectuals before him, he began to believe that ideas are more important than people, and that the ink of the text should be valued more than the breath of life. He forgot about the center of the world, and the blood and the flesh and the dirt and the cool hardness of reality."

I brought it home. "He put a nearly transparent solution on each page of a book, then let it dry, barely visible. Not a book, but a potential book, or a former book. A text. When the reader licked his finger to turn the pages, he got some of that dried solution on his fingers. When he licked his finger again, the solution got on his tongue. The more pages he read, the more he ingested through the skin and the mouth."

"You're talking about the character in Eco's book: Jorge of Burgos," Mislavsky tried to deflect. "The murderer in the book."

"I am talking of the murderer. And the murderer is trapped in a book. And the murderer is you," I said. "You observed the way Gardner read, and you must have seen that he turned the pages with a licked finger, just like Bartram. You know, people are shocked that they used to burn books, as if they thought that no bad thing could ever come from a book. But if no bad thing could come from a book, that would mean that no good thing could come from a book. If books can heal us, they can also hurt us. You wrote a book that lacked the potency to change minds. But you could use ingredients from your innocent apothecary roommate to give your book the power to destroy bodies. In your world of books outranking people, that was the natural thing to do."

From there, it all proceeded like clockwork. Gathering evidence from the apartment and the crime scene, taking statements from witnesses, and eventually getting a confession from Mislavsky. In fact, he was almost eager to confess. Students are often eager to get credit for their accomplishments, especially accomplishments that make them feel like they are clever.

Prospero said that the ideas and characters presented in texts are such stuff as dreams are made on. What he left out is that they can also be the stuff that nightmares are made on. Mislavsky had written a mediocre dissertation, but more importantly he had authored a dismal and evil life, that had culminated most recently in an ugly, unecessary murder.

I went back to my house, and sat on my couch. It was a soft couch, but harder than any idea. My house was not lavishly decorated but it was at least more real than any philosophy. I put my feet up, and appreciated them, not for their beauty but for their service to me, and even for their aches and pains. I leaned back and opened up a book and read.