Monday, April 5, 2021

Travels with the Nick Hoffman Series: Guest Post by Lev Raphael



I was fascinated by mysteries in junior high school, reading everything I could find in my upper Manhattan library by Agatha Christie, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, and John Creasey. 

But even though I dreamed of being an author, I never imagined writing my own mysteries. Short stories were my passion and I read classic authors in high school and college like Chekhov, Poe, de Maupassant, Maugham, Woolf, James, Wharton, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. My first book with St. Martin's Press was a collection of short stories that had been published over the course of a decade. When it won a prize, that seemed to confirm my career path. ​

But there was a story in the collection that continued to nag me. The narrator, Nick, was a college professor furious because his partner had helped an ex-lover get hired at their university. It was a comedy, but what if the ex- got murdered? Wasn't there a book in that?​ And maybe even a series? 

I returned to Christie, studying her fiendish plots and subtle dialogue. I also read Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, Michael Connelly, Dashiell Hammett, Janet Evanovich, Ken Follett, Georges Simenon and many more crime writers. It was the kind of immersion that I've always enjoyed, whether studying a foreign language like Swedish or taking voice lessons.​ ​ 

My editor at St. Martin's Press suggested academia for my setting because I knew it so intimately. I agreed because the world of the university was a perfect milieu for murder and mayhem. As I once heard a sociologist explain it, "Academics don't have good means of conflict resolution." ​

I located the series in my adopted home of Michigan, creating a fictional state capital of Michiganapolis where my hero taught at the equally fictional State University of Michigan (SUM). Starting out, I wanted the books to be both mysteries and academic satires. ​I had other goals, too. It was crucial that my main character Nick Hoffman had to be seen developing over the course of the books. ​He also had to directly experience the impact of dealing with so much death. 

The second book in the series, The Edith Wharton Murders, scored a rave review in The New York Times and that had special resonance for me. My immigrant mother always did the complex Sunday crossword puzzle to perfect her English. And the Times was practically a fetish object in New York City; we actually learned in elementary school how to fold it to be readable on a crowded bus or subway. 

Thanks to my growing notoriety after that review, I appeared as moderator or panelist at mystery conferences across the country and even abroad. I met fans, booksellers, and dozens of crime writers. These authors are fun to be around because they don't tend to take themselves too seriously despite devotion to their craft. 

I've enjoyed long, deep conversations over meals or drinks with writers like Val McDermid, Walter Mosley, Martha Lawrence, and Anne Perry, talking about everything from career to translations to our personal lives. I owe Val a special debt of gratitude because she spirited me off from a crowded, stuffy lecture room at Oxford when it looked like I was going to pass out from the heat and disrupt the panel. 

While I first became known as a writer of stories about children of Holocaust survivors, my series has let me employ humor that reviewers and fans have enjoyed. It's been a hoot doing readings from these books at colleges and universities where faculty will share gossip with me that can make for great material—suitably disguised, of course. Reading at a college town bookstore on one tour, I was asked if it was believable that someone died in each mystery and Nick's campus was so crime-ridden. Before I could answer, someone shouted, "Kill a whole department!" 

My mysteries earned me a job reviewing crime fiction for the Detroit Free Press where I discovered more writers than I could have found on my own, like the amazing Paula Woods of Inner City Blues and Terrill Lankford of Shooters. Thanks to being a reviewer, I was invited to a star-studded conference at a Caribbean Club Med. When I told the club's CEO that I wanted to set a mystery there, he generously invited me back the following year. I still marvel at the unique experiences that led to writing Tropic of Murder

Other reviewing gigs followed both for newspapers and public radio stations. I even ended up producing my own radio show where I interviewed distinguished authors. I also got to be a DJ in that gig, playing music of my choice at the halftime break. 

All the touring for the series further developed my skills as a performer of my own books. An extrovert with teaching and acting experience, I was comfortable with an audience, but none of that ever prepared me to read my own fiction on tour. I learned on the road, sometimes with my spouse giving me director's notes on what played well and what didn't. Those appearances helped me later design conference workshops where I've advised writers how to dynamically present their work. 

Writing the Nick Hoffman mysteries has always felt like going on vacation. I've relished the structure, the return to a familiar place, a familiar set of characters, and the challenge of coming up with a new kind of murder with a new set of clues while introducing new victims. The series has brought me a different audience which was a pleasant surprise. 

The Nick Hoffman books also gave me the confidence to make one of the later books a novel of suspense dealing with the militarization of our police forces. Assault With a Deadly Lie was truly one of those "ripped from the headlines" books because it dealt with the abuse of SWAT teams. That book scored me my first Midwest Book Award nomination and pushed Nick Hoffman to the edge, making the next and final books in the series not just possible but inevitable. 

From the very beginning of my career, I've been fortunate to have truly fine editors, from publishing stories and articles to appearing in anthologies and then publishing books across a dozen different genres. All three of the Nick Hoffman editors have been insightful and inspiring: Keith Kahla, Michael Seidman, and Meredith Phillips. The series has benefited from their expertise at every turn, and they've taught me to be a better editor myself in my roles as a creative writing teacher and mentor, which I now do online. 

Nick Hoffman started out as an anxious un-tenured assistant professor who was only hired because SUM wanted his partner as the writer-in-residence for their English Department. That's a black mark for Nick. He's also not respected for his work as a bibliographer, since bibliographies are helpful and accessible rather than abstruse monographs read by hardly anyone. 

Even worse, he actually enjoys teaching which doesn't rate high enough when it comes to promotion. And the murders he gets embroiled in invariably create bad PR for his department and the university. I've had fun pitting him against other faculty, administrators, and even campus police as he's grown more confident in himself while becoming more conflicted about the hothouse academic world he inhabits. 

When a professor friend asked me what was happening with Nick in my latest, Department of Death, I told her he was now the department chair and it would be the last mystery in the series. She laughed and said, "Lots of academic careers have ended that way."


Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-seven books in nearly a dozen different genres. Raphael is best known as a pioneer in writing fiction and creative non-fiction about the children of Holocaust survivors, which he's been publishing since 1978, before almost any other American author. His work has appeared in dozens of anthologies in the U.S. and England. He's a guest assistant professor of English at Michigan State University. Raphael's academic mystery series has earned raves from the NYTBR and many other newspapers and magazines. Raphael has written hundreds of reviews for The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, Forward, The Washington Post, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Boston Review and Lambda Book Report. A former radio talk show host, he also reviewed for several radio shows before giving up on print journalism as well as radio. Follow him on Twitter @LevRaphael. Raphael's web site is


Priscilla said...

Many thanks for this fascinating article!

Lev Raphael said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Priscilla, and sorry I was late in replying. I've been busy editing!