Isabel Vittorio, who, as a department chair at the fictional Austin University, had variously “been described as narcissistic, charismatic, brilliant, and opportunistic” was found slumped over her desk in the Department of Literature and Rhetoric early on a Monday morning, her neck broken. What ensues as the murder investigation unfolds is a peek inside what author Lynn C. Miller called the closed, “wonderful dysfunctional family template” of a humanities department. Miller’s novel is a satire of the perils of faculty politics, the naiveté of new hires, the social ineptitude of some of those trained to teach communication and, more seriously, the failure to hire a diverse faculty that the writer sees mirrored in real research universities across the nation.
In Death of a Department Chair (Terrace Books), Miller, a professor of theater at the University of Texas at Austin, delights in academic and non-academic humor alike. For instance, a young professor stares at Isabel, stunned at one point, pondering the “irony of academic life” that “this woman actually studied rhetorical strategies and yet behaved so cluelessly toward others,” while another professor’s husband, Marvin, operates his own business, its name a decidedly non-scholarly allusion: Marvin Gardens.
Miller’s main character, Miriam Held, the upright, ethical faculty member Miller said she always wished had been her colleague, finds herself as a prime suspect in Isabel’s murder not only because of their love affair 12 years past, but also because she had recently lost a bitter battle to become department chair and because, in her attempts to recruit a talented black scholar, she found herself at odds with Isabel. “But this is a public university,” Miriam says in the novel. “In a state with a huge minority population – soon to be the majority. Don’t you think the people of Texas want their flagship university to reflect the population – and the concerns – of their state?”
In an interview, Miller said that her book, while set in Austin, is not meant to specifically resemble UT-Austin, where she teaches, but instead to reflect the culture of an English or communications department at any major research university (Miller has ties to a number of research institutions: Prior to coming to Texas, she taught at Pennsylvania State University and was an administrator at Purdue University). The issues she raises in fictional form are ones that have either puzzled her at research universities in real life or incited her passion. For instance, Miller’s observation that, “It’s always been remarkable to me in communications departments that there are people who can’t communicate,” is a tension that lies at the comic heart of the novel.
Also comic is her exploration of the naiveté of the young faculty member, personified by Miriam’s friend Fiona in the book. “I’m just remembering myself when I was finishing my degree, just about ready to look for my first job. I was a naive academic. I think you go into this line of work because you’re passionate about the things that you study and research and many of us really love to teach. We’re excited about communication with students and being a mentor; then you get a job and you run up against all of the politics,” Miller said.
But Miller’s real-life frustration with a failure of universities across the country to effectively recruit and promote female and minority faculty members strikes a more serious tone in the novel, as she explores a tension between what people say and what they do. Along those lines, Miller said she’s also profoundly intrigued by characters like Isabel -- a coldly ambitious and unlikable character by many standards -- whom she feels sympathetic toward nevertheless. “What is the model for being a really powerful woman?” Miller asks. “It’s hard to find, right? How can you be super-successful and powerful and not be like Isabel?”
Miller said that the murder in the novel was not patterned after any particular incident, but some of the circumstances are eerily similar to a 2004 killing of a music professor at UT that occurred after she completed the draft of the book -- an especially eerie coincidence given one of the sub-themes of the novel that life can imitate art.
But ultimately, the book is meant to be a fun read, to make people laugh, to recreate the often dysfunctional but intriguing world of a university humanities department as a setting for the murder mystery. “If people don’t laugh when they read this book,” Miller said, “then I’d be very worried.”