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Quieter Than Sleep
A Modern Mystery of Emily Dickinson
By Joanne Dobson

Bantam Books
$5.99 ($7.99 U.S.)

Reviewed by Therese Greenwood

Joanne Dobson has bitten off a huge challenge with Quieter Than Sleep. A first novel with all that entails in terms of setting and characters common to the author's life, this tale of collegiate crime also begs a comparison with Amanda Cross, the queen of murderous academe.

Quieter Than Sleep stands up well. The characters are well-drawn, especially the professor-cum-detective, and the academic scenarios -- the sexism, the intellectual rivalries, the prevalence of money and the class system -- bristle with authenticity, especially to those of us who live in an university town.

Dobson's detective, professor Karen Pelletier, is a student of the poet Emily Dickinson and a teacher at the tony Enfield College in New England. Landing this job is the break of a lifetime for the budding scholar, but she quickly finds herself surrounded by the raging egos, deadly bores, and sexual tensions common to novels set in the ivory towers of academe. By the time Pelletier finds the star scholar -- prone to writing erotic verse about women who do not always welcome his attention -- strangled with his own flashy necktie, the list of suspects abounds.

Indeed, the author gives us a good list of potential murderers, including a jealous wife, a raging father, and a romantic rival. Somewhat less convincing are those suspects whose motive hinges on the question of to whether the vicious nature of academics can evolve beyond cutting sarcasm. Given the relative ease with which one can raise objections as to authenticity and academic interpretation, character assassination seems more likely than the real kind.

But if any writer lends herself to academic infighting, it's Emily Dickinson, who only published 10 poems during her lifetime (1830-1886.) With most of her work published posthumously and prudently edited by relatives, there are infinite unanswered questions about the author. With Dickinson scholarship currently on the academic A-list, and questions about her sexuality the subject of New York Times Magazine articles, maybe it isn't such a far-fetched motive for murder after all.


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