The Readers, part 1

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.


Click here to read part 2.

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