Zoland Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Murder in the Museum of Man is quite different from almost every other novel reviewed in this series. Almost without exception they have been thrillers, mysteries, or horror novels. This little gem is a murder mystery, but one of the most hilarious efforts this reviewer has read in years. It is a hilarious send-up of the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, indeed the idiocies, of academia.
The narrative is related in the pages of “unauthorized and unofficial entries” in the Log of the Museum of Man, penned by Recording Secretary and as we quickly find out, amateur sleuth, Norman de Ratour. Norman is the latest in a long line of Recording Secretaries of the Museum of Man (referred to throughout the novel as MOM) and it is obvious that this somewhat prissy fellow, known by the sobriquet of “Bow Tie” by his boss, takes this position in the Museum hierarchy very seriously. While trained as an archaeologist—he does have a certain disdain for fieldwork—it is a bit unclear whether he does anything else at the Museum than to perform the duties of Recording Secretary for the institution’s governing board.
There are several subtexts that run throughout the course of the adventure, but one of the most important is the historical and continuing efforts by Wainscott University to essentially absorb the Museum of Man into its bureaucratic maw, casting especially avaricious institutional eyes upon Mom’s Genetics Lab and Primate Pavilion. To this end, Wainscott has sent Cranston Fessing to MOM as “visiting administrative dean,” to sniff out possible financial improprieties within the museum’s operations. Fessing goes missing and after a brief passage of time, his horribly murdered and cannibalized remains are found in a dumpster behind Atwood Hall, the gender studies building. Norman resolves to take on the mystery of the late dean’s unhappy demise, while at the same time fighting against Wainscott’s persistent incursion upon MOM’s integrity and independence, AND doing daily battle with his unctuous boss, the cultural philistine (to Norman’s way of thinking) Malachy (“Call me Mal”) Morin.
The number of prime suspects mounts with each passing day and Norman soon finds himself overwhelmed with the plausible and possible perpetrators of this heinous crime. There is Damon Drex, the clearly delusional director of the Primate Pavilion, whose experiments with chimps seem well beyond the pale of even weird science; there is anthropologist Cornelius Chard, outspoken proponent (in an academic sense, of course) of anthropophagy (cannibalism); there are Professor Gottling, head of the Genetics Lab and his financial angel, Mr. Onoyoko of Onoyoko Pharmaceuticals, who might fear takeover of their somewhat suspect sperm bank experiments if Wainscott should prevail in its takeover bid; there is paleoanthropologist Thad Pilty, whose pet project (read: obsession) to build a permanent Neanderthal diorama in Mom, was undergoing skeptical scrutiny by the late visiting Dean Fessing; there is also anthropologist-emeritus Raul Brauer, who according to MOM lore and legend, went “native” years before, and along with a number of grad students and other academic assistants, killed and ate one of the volunteers, in an effort to re-create the rituals of the primitive Rangu tribe they were studying on the island of Loa Hoa in the South Pacific. Museum records indicate that both Cornelius Chard and Thad Pilty were both assistants on this (allegedly) ill-fated expedition.
Another “Visiting Administrative Dean” (Oliver Scrabbe) is dispatched from the hallowed administrative halls of Wainscott to MOM and he soon goes missing and only his severed head is discovered. This adds to the list of suspects the person of Alger Wherry, the MOM Curator of the Skull Collection, who, as it turns out, was also a member of the Brauer Loa Hoa project!
The twists and turns of this incredible romp through murderous mayhem as well as academic mayhem are too numerous and convoluted to go into any further, but suffice it to say that Norman doggedly pursues the answer to these crimes, in great part as a pitiful and pathetic attempt to win back the heart (and body) of his long lost love, Elsbeth, and that the final solution to the crimes committed is both surprising (in its Agatha Christie-like denouement) and not surprising (in that it is hilarious).
For a delightful laugh-out-loud read, I give Murder in the Museum of Man four trowels—five, if my editor allowed it!