reviewed by Carolyn Scott
Dr. Verbena Sobek, a new Professor of German at the University of Georgia in Athens, has been finding her first year in the position tough. Not only because of the heavy workload of teaching and grading but also dealing with students who don’t want to be taking the course and make her life difficult. However, she has one star pupil, Ethan Haddock, who always does his homework and outshines everyone else. She tries not to show favoritism, but it’s difficult when he’s the only one who is truly engaged.
After the winter break, Verbena notices Ethan seems depressed and his grades are slipping. She tries to talk to him and get him to seek student counseling, but he only seems to be getting worse. When Ethan is found dead in his apartment by one of his roommates, it’s assumed he committed suicide. But then rumors start to circulate that he was having an affair with his German professor, and Verbena is suspended while the University investigates.
Verbena’s senior colleague, Dr. Helena Schmidt-Kaplan, doesn’t believe that Verbena would have an affair with a student. However, the media is relentless in hounding her, so Helena asks her daughter, Marlitt, a former police detective, to find out what she can by going undercover on campus. Not much older than Ethan’s classmates, she easily blends in on campus and talks to them. When Ethan’s roommates, Spencer and Sadie, advertise his room vacancy, she is also able to move into his old apartment and get close to them.
While Marlitt is the narrator for the current events in the novel, two other voices, ‘Him’ and ‘Her,’ fill in the details of previous events. The novel builds gradually in a slow burn as the scene is set, gathering pace in the second half of the novel as events unfold and the reader starts to question their assumptions about what really happened to Ethan. A major, clever twist will ramp up the suspense, finding Marlitt in the center of a dangerous position.
Marlitt Kaplan’s time as a detective is the subject of a previous novel, The Resemblance, also set on the University of Georgia campus. Some readers may wish to read this first to learn more about Marlitt’s backstory; however, I found that The Professor worked well as a stand-alone mystery, although with a scant amount of information about why she left the police force.
The Professor raises important issues surrounding student mental health, especially for new students learning to adapt to a new environment, and the inability of college counseling services to deal with the increasing problem. Although Verbena tries to give Ethan a sympathetic ear, she knows she is not trained to provide counseling and must draw a line somewhere between compassion and becoming too involved. She is also coping with her own problems of being a young academic seeking tenure and coping with heavy workloads at the expense of neglecting her own social life and mental health. Lies, deceit, manipulation, and power struggles all come together to make this cleverly written mystery a compelling read.
Thanks to Flatiron Books via Netgalley for a copy to read.
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