Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: John Alexander Graham's The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme is unpacking at the hotel and then having dinner at the ninth stop on our dangerous journey through the alphabet – the letter “I.” Our tour guide, Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, is doing an excellent job of showing us all the sights. My contribution this week is John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler, published in 1971.

The novel takes place at a fictional Massachusetts school, Hewes College, during a time of great social upheaval and student unrest on campuses. Arnold Wechsler, a professor in the Classics Department, has no interest in getting involved in the growing divide between the students and the college’s faculty and administration; he just wants to do his job as well as he can. Wechsler gets drawn into the turmoil, though, when he’s summoned to the office of Winthrop Dohrn, President of Hewes College. It seems that Wechsler’s younger brother David, who was a Hewes student until he joined a radical movement and more or less dropped out of sight, has returned to campus. Dohrn asks Wechsler to contact his brother and find out if he’s been involved in any subversive activities or is about to be. Wechsler has no desire to spy on his brother, from whom he’s semi-estranged anyway, but he has even less desire to put his career at risk. So he reluctantly agrees to get in touch with David.

It’s not long before Wechsler himself begins to wonder how involved his brother is in subversion. First, a carton of scopolamine goes missing from a local hospital. Then, Dohrn’s granddaughter Nancy is kidnapped and the Dohrn family receives a note from the kidnappers signed with David Wechsler’s initials. David insists that he’s been framed in an effort to stop the student group he’s leading, and although Wechsler isn’t too sure whether to believe his brother, he agrees to help get to the bottom of what’s going on. Then, President Dohrn himself is killed when the family’s home is destroyed by a bomb. Now, the Wechsler brothers have to work together to find out who’s responsible for what’s happened. There’s more than one possibility, too. The Student Liberation Committee (SLA) that David co-leads is by no means a united group. More than one member of the committee would like to see David out as a leader. And then there’s the Dohrn family. The more Arnold Wechsler learns about the family, the more secrets he finds. In the end, the Wechsler brothers learn that the real cause for everything that’s happened is quite different from what either of them had thought.

You wouldn’t normally think there’d be an element of the thriller in an academic mystery, but this novel does have some “thriller” in it. There’s quite a lot of suspense as Arnold Wechsler tries to tread the delicate line between the student radicals he meets and his own faculty/administration group. That suspense is ratcheted up by the atmosphere of mistrust on both sides and the smoldering conflicts among the factions in the student group. The suspense is also helped by the growing awareness that several people involved in this story are not telling everything they know. There’s more than one moment when Arnold Wechsler has no idea who’s really telling the truth.

More than anything, though, this is an academic mystery. The setting is a traditional Liberal Arts college and the reader is clearly placed on campus:

“The campus is laid out around a service road roughly in the shape of a spiral. The road begins near the geometric center of the campus in the Seddon Hall parking log, just north of the main complex of classroom buildings. These buildings, Sedon, Harwell and Feathersone, border on the main quadrangle, a small area with a few trees and numerous keep-off-the-grass strips.”

There’s a map of the campus on the inside front and back covers of the book, too, which is quite helpful in developing the setting.

We also get an “inside look” at the routine of classes, meetings and so on that are still a part of academe even forty years after this book was published. Many things about campus life have changed dramatically since the time the book was written. Some things though, such as the pressure to publish and the reality of campus politics, are still a big part of university life in many places, and this novel captures those. For instance, here’s a snippet of a faculty meeting:

Green: ‘…In the third sentence there seems to be the implication that the faculty is in some way to be blamed [for the atmosphere of unrest]. Is that the intent here?’

Jones: ‘Definitely not’

Green: ‘Then I’d like to propose an amendment. Perhaps it could be regarded as an editorial amendment.’

Smith: ‘Point of order. Mr. Chairman, this motion has already been amended once. Is an amendment to an amendment admissible?’

(The Chair looks helplessly at Williams of the English department, our acknowledged Parliamentarian.)

Williams: ‘The answer to Mr. Smith’s motion – ah, question, is yes. An amendment to an amendment is admissible. An amendment to an amendment to an amendment, however, is not admissible.’”

We also get a fascinating look at what campus life was like during the great sociopolitical changes that occurred during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. There are angry student groups, a mention of the Viet Nam war draft, and other reminders of that time.

Arnold Wechsler is an interesting character, and his personality is woven through the novel. He’s reluctant at first to get involved in the situation on campus but it’s not because he’s lazy. It’s more accurate to say that he’s self-protective. He likes his job and his safe life and doesn’t want to lose either. And yet, as the novel evolves, so does Wechsler. He begins to take some risks and in the process, learns some things about himself. He also gains a new perspective on his brother David. Wechsler’s far from perfect, but he’s likeable and we can cheer for him as he and his brother get to the bottom of the mystery.

The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler is in some ways a “period piece.” But some of the more enduring themes, such as family ties, safety vs taking risks and trust issues keep it from being “trapped in the past.” But what do you think? Have you read The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Oh, and isn’t that a great vintage cover?! ;-)


  1. Your review brought back memories. I was in university in Canada in 1971. There was a strong radical presence on campus

    I found it interesting to see the university president's surname. Bernadine Dohrn was a leading American radical of that time with the SDS and Weathermen. I am not sure what message was being sent by the author with his choice of name but I am sure it was not an accident

    The cover is definitely '60's.

  2. Bill - Thank you so much for your perspective. I hadn't thought about that similarity of names, but I'll bet you're right that the college president's name was not an accident.

    I think there was a strong radical presence on a lot of campuses at the time and it affected more than one novel written during that era. Radicalism features, for instance, in Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning from, I think, 1971, that also takes place on a campus (this time in the UK).

    I agree about the cover, too. And the book you see is a first edition, so that was the cover it came with; it's not a "retro edition."

  3. The cover caught my attention first. This sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for introducing me to this 'new to me' author and academic mystery.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - That really is an eye-catching cover, isn't it? Actually Graham wrote another book you might be interested in, too, called Something in the Air, among others he wrote. They're two very different kinds of mysteries, but I enjoyed them both.

  5. I love campus novels of any sort (I studied with David Lodge during the time he excelled in that genre) but the more so if they're mysteries as well. As I was a student the first time round at the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s, this would make a great comparison to my UK experience. I shall have to see if there are any copies available over here.

  6. Annie - Oh, that would be interesting to see how the experiences in this novel would compare to your own. I thought it was really interesting to compare this novel's portrayal of campus life to the campus life we see in Peter Robinson's An Advancement of Learning, another campus mystery written the same year, but that takes place in the UK.

    I love campus mysteries, too; there's just something about the college or university atmosphere, isn't there? And you're fortunate you got the chance to study with Lodge.

  7. What a great cover indeed. And David Lodge was certainly my favorite practitioner. Malcolm Bradbury was another one.

  8. Patti - I know; it's a great cover :-). And yes, Lodge was great! Thanks for mentioning Bradbury, too. Another good 'un

  9. I'm never quite so at home as I am on a college campus; should have been a professional student I think. As a Vietnam War protestor of the 60s (not SLA of course, very nonviolent), I think I'd like this book.The meeting bit is hilarious, and so true of the wastefulness of meetings in other fields as well.