Michael Collins, The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton (2006)

Also Known in the US as Death of a Writer.

I usually love campus novels, especially set in beautiful campuses of New England or Great Britain. Possession, The Rules of Attraction, I am Charlotte Simmons… I’m also a sucker for academic mysteries and I wouldn’t miss an episode of Inspector Lewis.

But, but… It seems that not every campus mystery is built on the same mold, and I couldn’t quite find my way into this one.

Robert Pendleton is an ageing professor in the New England College of Bannockburn. His only successful publication was more than 10 years ago, and he has become so unpopular among peers and students that the director threatens to review his tenure, unless he manages to get a best-selling writer, Horowitz, an old competitor of his, to come and give a talk at the college.

Humiliations and threats put too much pressure on Pendleton, who proceeds to take his life on Horowitz’s arrival. But Pendleton is such a loser that even his attempt fails. He’s kept alive in hospital and later under the care of Adi, a perpetual graduate student.

Adi moves into Pendleton’s house under the pretext of caring for him, and finds in the basement an old copy of a mystery novel published by Pendleton decades earlier. She manages to have the book republished, with huge success, until the success turns into controversy and suspicion as the murder in the book fits a real unsolved local crime, with some details that only the murderer would have known.

The cold case is reopened by a sorrowful cop with a shady past and his own obsessions…

Is Pendleton the real killer?

I realized while writing this outline that every piece of the jigsaw seems just right, but how come the result is so wrong? Collins wanted to criticize the academic milieu and literary conventions, but using irony and cynicism doesn’t marry very well with the conventions of a thriller. From the start I couldn’t relate to any of the negative characters. Pendleton, Adi, the cop, Horowitz, all failures one way or another: I couldn’t care for them, nor did I believe in them!

I was just left floating from one twist to the next, barely understanding all the secrets that everyone hides in this complex book. The pace was very slow and not quite engaging. I probably missed out a lot (especially the humorous bits, as usual dare I say), but I was just in a hurry to be done with it. If any reader has read it and enjoyed it, I’d love to hear a second opinion!


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