Book Review: The Darkling Halls of Ivy edited by Lawrence Block
By Thomas PluckMay 28, 2020
The world of academia has always been ripe fruit for the fictional plucking, as it often leaves a mark everyone who endures it, as student and teacher. And as it serves as the day job for many writers, they have a fresh perspective. Lawrence Block’s latest anthology, the fifth—at least—since he announced his retirement, is The Darkling Halls of Ivy, stories set in the world of college and university, by a varied roster of writers from Owen King and Seanan McGuire to Ian Rankin and Gar Anthony Haywood. And like the previous books, the bar is set high and every story exhibits the same effort as if the author is submitting their doctoral thesis.
(Disclaimer: I’ve contributed to three of LB’s anthologies, and my explanation for the continued high quality of the stories is this: when a Grandmaster of Mystery whose mastery of the short form is only overshadowed by his novels asks you to write a short story, you don’t half-ass it.)
This is rich subject matter; everyone has an opinion of secondary education, educators, the administration, the student body, and whether a diploma is a hard-earned badge of courage or a piece of paper to pad one’s résumé. As a student of English Literature who completed the Rutgers university college honors program, I enjoyed looking back with both fondness and vengeful delight as the writers took their turns skewering enemies long left behind. The burnt-out, adulterous professor has become a hackneyed literary trope, and one or two exists here, but they are given a fresh coat of tar and feather and never commit the sin of being boring. Everyone approaches the subject with relish. Fans of LB get “Something to Skip,” a light-hearted foreword that touches on his recent return to academia and how it inspired this book, but he doesn’t contribute a fictional entry. (Pick up his massive collection Enough Rope if you want a taste of what he can do with a short story. My favorite is “The Gentle Way.”)
David Morrell unravels a murder mystery twenty years on, mostly through dialogue, and it grips you by the throat. It rang of A Kiss Before Dying, with a masterful twist from the thriller king. Reed Farrel Coleman delights in creating a teacher who teaches “triggered” students the Trolley Problem in a novel fashion. This is the only story that focuses on how “sensitive” students are today; skipping ahead, A.J. Hartley spins the opposite, with gripping duel over Shakespeare’s The Tempest between a doddering pompous dinosaur and a revenant in a sharkskin suit. No one seems to have a good thing to say about the administrative body, though they are not painted as monsters, either.
Jane Hamilton, author of The Book of Ruth, tackles a story of the ultimate appropriation, and the kind of daring that makes one a writer. It’s one of the few times I’ve read a character who decided they weren’t cut out to be a writer! There’s a great balance of moods and genres, but every story has enough suspense to keep crime fiction fans happy. That being said, Warren Moore is a delight, and his story here is no exception. Professoring can be a cutthroat business, and he takes it to a new level.
David Levien’s story of dinner with Einstein and discussing Hiroshima was one of the most memorable. Whether it is invented, a recreation of what was or what might have been, it is why we create stories, and is one of the many gems of the collection. Another: Joe Lansdale is a master of the short story, and could not have predicted the pandemic when he wrote his entry, but the hallmarks for the government sacrificing people for the economy were all there, and his story reads like Jonathan Swift’s latest op-ed. And Ian Rankin tells a gripping mystery involving an old secret society in Edinburgh, which made me want to hop a plane and revisit the city.
Tom Straw’s Hitchcockian tale begins with a shocking verbal attack on Mr. Rogers, and earns it with a protagonist who is hellbent on swimming with the current as he flushes his life down the toilet, a frenzy of self-destruction that’s as difficult to look away from as the end of Goodfellas.
Xu Xi tells a fable of the Monkey King transplanted to academic politics in future Hong Kong, and Peter Lovesey gives us a Bertie mystery set during a boat race that endeared me to this royal rascal of a character. I’ll be looking for his three books about Prince Albert, after this review is in the can. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Owen King spins a creepy tale of a dorm mate who has a mental breakdown, perhaps after seeing the workings of the universe, in “That Golden Way.” This one is cosmic horror, but will appeal to anyone who still wakes from nightmares where they find themselves wandering the empty halls of their alma mater. Gar Anthony Haywood tells a cautionary tale of selling papers to the wrong rich boy—a time-honored tradition in crime fiction—and Jill D. Block puts us inside the head of the obsessive roommate with such perfect pathos that I felt sorry for the little walking nightmare, and even saw a bit of her in myself. This is one of her best.
John Lescroart harrows us with the aftermath of a campus rape that still haunts me. Nicholas Christopher returns—his “Room by the Sea” in Block’s Edward Hopper-themed anthology In Sunlight and in Shadow was a knockout—with a professor researching the fire in the library of Alexandria, while he is followed by a relentless stalker, perhaps from his own past or further back still. Seanan McGuire gives us a fresh-faced plucky student on financial aid who has her own learned way of dealing with the “pampered housecats,” the students who never have to worry about money, or that a bad grade will annul their scholarship and leave them scrounging. The sacrifices we make for our educations are not always our own.
And “Goon #4” by Tod Goldberg gets its own paragraph because it finishes the book with a hilarious bang, as the nameless goon who works as muscle for pay in the employ of billionaires and baddies not only gets a name, but retires on his gains and goes back to get his degree. I haven’t read Goldberg before, but this had a winning blend of wry humor and cringing violence that mocks the “tactical tough guy thriller” perfectly, because it knows the character and the territory so well. This is Back to School with Liam Neeson from Taken but is somehow just as funny as Rodney Dangerfield.
Short version: The Darkling Halls of Ivy is another great anthology edited by Lawrence Block, with everything from hitmen to witchery and publish or perish taken to the extreme, a delightfully enjoyable read for both those who miss their college days or look back with loathing.