RogerBW's Blog

Murder in the Museum of Man, Alfred Alcorn 06 March 2016

1997 humorous detective fiction; first of Alcorn's novels of Norman de Ratour, Recording Secretary at the Museum of Man, an anthropological museum somewhere in New England. Dean Fessing goes missing, and most of him turns up expertly cooked. That inevitably starts rumours of cannibalism, but there may be fire to go with this smoke…

This is also a parody of attitudes in academia, with varying levels of success; broad swipes at the politically-correct radical feminist (and she eats all the doughnuts, har har har) and self-important incomprehensible literary criticism (with several pages of pastiche) don't work as well as digs at the more general academic politics surrounding the neighbouring Wainscott University's attempts to take over the museum, discussions on a proposed diorama of Neanderthal life, and what seems like an attempt to implement the Infinite Monkeys experiment. Alcorn worked at Harvard's Museum of Natural History for some years, and one suspects that much of this is drawn from the life; towards the end it sometimes seems a little like a well-mannered revenge fantasy, particularly in the mawkishly romantic coda.

There has been talk over the years of a Brauer cult, maintained by him and his students who were present at the alleged murder and cannibalism. They meet, supposedly, and do things that cults do. I have never subscribed to the rumor myself. It strikes me as apocryphal, one of those tasteless jokes that gets started around the campfire and takes on a life of its own. Besides, I can't imagine academics letting something like that go by without someone, somewhere, publishing a paper on it.

The pace is always slow; the book is presented as de Ratour's private notes, and he's a fussy and precise person, though he certainly undergoes something of an internal revolution over the course of the book.

I stepped around the carnage, picked up the papers, and left. Downstairs I told a uniformed officer that there was a dead chimp in my office and it was to be treated as evidence in a murder case. He said he would inform one of the detectives.

The writing is particularly good, and I found the book something of a pleasure to read simply for itself as well as for its content.

This is alas the sort of book that's full of silly names, not just Thad Pilty and Corny Chard, but a dig site called Infra, and a Father S. J. O'Gould S. J. The mystery itself relies on a couple of last-minute reveals and what seems to me like insufficient motivation, and substantial secondary plot elements are left entirely unresolved (though I suspect they will be revisited in a future book in the series).

Overall, perhaps this is a little too consciously clever for its own good, but it's still highly enjoyable. Followed by The Love Potion Murders in the Museum of Man.

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