“Lila Maclean is one of my new favorite detectives. She’s smart, she works hard, and she just solves a crime when it’s needed.” – BookStuffed
When Professor Lila Maclean is sent to interview celebrated author and notorious cad Damon Von Tussel, he disappears before her very eyes. The English department is thrown into chaos by the news, as Damon is supposed to headline Stonedale University’s upcoming Arts Week.
The chancellor makes it clear that he expects Lila to locate the writer and set events back on track immediately. But someone appears to have a different plan: strange warnings are received, valuable items go missing, and a series of dangerous incidents threaten the lives of Stonedale’s guests. After her beloved mother, who happens to be Damon’s ex, rushes onto campus and into harm’s way, Lila has even more reason to bring the culprit to light before anything—or anyone—else vanishes.
“Cynthia Kuhn is phenomenal at conveying the tension-filled atmosphere that inundates higher institutions, where one’s fate rests entirely on a few out-of-touch, pompous faculty members.” – Kings River Life Magazine
“The best cozy debut I’ve read this year. An engaging heroine, a college setting that will have you aching to go back to school, and a puzzler of a mystery make this a must-read for cozy lovers.” – Laura DiSilverio, National Bestselling Author of the Readaholics Book Club Mysteries (on The Semester of Our Discontent)
“A very intricate, cool story featuring the depth of an institution where everyone is dying to climb the ladder of success.” – Suspense Magazine (on The Semester of Our Discontent)
Related subjects include: women sleuths, cozy mysteries, amateur sleuth books, murder mysteries, whodunit mysteries (whodunnit), academic mysteries, book club recommendations.
Books in the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery Series:
THE SEMESTER OF OUR DISCONTENT (#1)
THE ART OF VANISHING (#2)
Part of the Henery Press Mystery Series Collection, if you like one, you'll probably like them all…
Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery Series. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Literary Mama, Copper Nickel, Prick of the Spindle, Mama PhD and other publications. She teaches English at Metropolitan State University of Denver and serves as president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information, please visit cynthiakuhn.net.
Read an Excerpt
The campus was cloaked in pale gray light. Softly descending flakes muted the frozen landscape and cast a tranquil spell, as if I were inside of a snow globe.
Until a booming voice shattered that all to bits.
"Dr. Maclean, I presume?" Trawley Wellington, former literature professor and current Stonedale University chancellor, descended the stairs of Randsworth Hall, where the muckety mucks were housed — him being the muckiest of them all. "Might I have a word?"
I paused. Chancellor-speak tended to be gentled versions of direct actions, like "have a word" instead of "insist that you report for reprimand" or "borrow you for a minute" rather than "command you to scurry to my side." Although they sounded polite, they were iron-clad demands, make no mistake.
"Hello, Chancellor," I said, waiting until he had reached the bottom step. He didn't move to the sidewalk but remained literally and metaphorically above me. As he intended. I don't know why he thought he needed the step — at well over six feet tall, he already looked down on most of us anyway, and his uncanny resemblance to Franklin Delano Roosevelt augmented his air of authority. "I was on my way to Crandall Hall to deliver the materials," he informed me.
At my blank look, he made a sound of exasperation. "You're on the Arts Week committee, are you not, Lila?"
"Yes," I said. "Arts Week" was an abbreviated version of the official title, "Twenty-First Century Arts and Culture Series," during which notable individuals taught workshops and gave creative readings or lectures. It was very popular with students and faculty alike. This spring, we were bringing in celebrated author Damon Von Tussel.
The chancellor cleared his throat. "Seems like an actively participating committee member would be up to date on what is happening ..." He leaned heavily on "actively participating" so I didn't miss the subtext, which was that he considered me a slacker.
Perfect. When department chair Roland Higgins had passed away, his interim replacement Spencer Bartholomew had suggested I join the planning committee, closing the deal by pointing out that the event was one of the chancellor's pet projects. It would not only put me in contact with the most powerful person at Stonedale but would likely earn me some goodwill, which, after last semester — when the chancellor basically accused me of murdering Roland — was sorely needed.
So far, I didn't seem to be racking up much goodwill at all.
"Most of the planning was done before I started working here," I said evenly, aiming for factual but not apologetic. "I do know Damon is arriving next week."
A smile played over the chancellor's lips. "That's absolutely incorrect. He's already in Colorado, and he is giving a reading in Denver tonight." He raised the piece of paper he held in his slim fingers. "Here is the list of questions we need you to ask him. We'll run the interview in the school paper and on the website on Friday."
There was a long silence while the chancellor waited for me to take the page from him. I didn't. When he pulled his thick brows together, my palms started to sweat inside my thin gloves.
"Unfortunately, I have plans this evening." I knew it was unwise to decline, but I was going to a meeting of the recently formed Stonedale Literary Society, and I was looking forward to our discussion of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Plus, I really didn't want to put myself in the position: Von Tussel was known to torment interviewers if he couldn't dodge them altogether. I tried to appease the chancellor with an offer of help. "Would you like me to deliver the questions to Spencer? I'm sure he has someone lined up to take care of this."
"No. I'd like you to do it." The man was used to making pronouncements and having them instantly followed. I'd rejected the easiest option for him, which was to hand the questions off to the first person he saw, so now it had become a power thing.
I willed my brain to summon up an effective excuse, stat.
"Is the interview confirmed?" I asked, stalling.
"Of course. We've made arrangements through his agent's office. All you have to do is show up and read from this list." He shook the page he still held in his outstretched hand impatiently. "Do you think you could manage it, Dr. Maclean?" The chancellor tightened his lips.
"I'd certainly appreciate it," he added, with a crisp edge to his tone that I read as a warning.
"All right," I said, resigned. "I'll do it." I took the list from his hand. A flash of triumph crossed his face.
"Oh, how very kind of you," he said, as if I'd volunteered, though we both knew I hadn't. "I'll expect your email tomorrow."
He turned to go, then looked back. "Don't let us down, Dr. Maclean." He held my eyes for a moment before marching up the stairs into Randsworth.
I spun around and plodded home. The last thing I wanted to do was drive to Denver tonight — it was an hour each way — in the snow, in the dark. No time to ponder the complexities of the journey, however; I was now on a mission to retrieve answers from a notoriously reticent author who would almost certainly refuse my efforts to interview him.
Several hours later, I was standing in front of The Savoy. One of Denver's newest venues in the Art District along Santa Fe Drive, it had been transformed from a dilapidated auditorium into a dazzling Art Deco masterpiece. I paused at the black-and-white poster of Damon Von Tussel out front, all barrel-chested and bearded with his arms crossed in a serious pose, likely cultivating the frequently mentioned similarities to Ernest Hemingway, both physically and verbally. Damon's first book had a strong minimalist style but a dizzyingly fragmented structure; "Hemingway in a blender," some critic had called it.
Inside the theater, I took a minute to appreciate the bold geometric designs and soaring ceiling before locating agent Tally Bendel down by the stage. She denied knowing anything about an interview. Linear in a black tunic, miniskirt, and boots, she appeared almost translucent beneath her overly processed blonde hair, aside from a slash of deep crimson lips. Her black-rimmed eyes were fixed above my head the whole time we spoke. I fought the urge to jump into her line of sight.
Even though I'd explained that the chancellor wanted to generate positive publicity for Damon's upcoming visit to Stonedale, she shook her head and said, "Sorry, doll — my assistant must have forgotten to tell me. In any case, Damon's not in the right mindset. You're better off sending me the questions, and I'll try to get him to answer them soon."
I knew a brush-off when I heard one, though I took the pink neon business card she dangled in front of me just in case.
Plan B was to try my luck backstage, as soon as I could get past security in front of the stage door on the left. All I needed was someone to leave the doorway unattended briefly. We had an hour to go until the reading started, so I took a front-row seat and watched the parade of muscles, all wearing black turtlenecks, cargo pants, and earpieces, guarding the door: one hulk replaced the next every ten minutes or so. I remained poised and ready to strike. For the thousandth time, I reached into my bag to make sure the questions were still there. Once I'd confirmed they were safe, I formulated Plan C. If I couldn't get in to see Damon before the reading, then afterwards I would need to sprint backstage, find the author, and throw myself on his mercy. And even if Von Tussel wouldn't answer my questions, I hoped that emphasizing our enthusiasm about the upcoming visit might persuade him to say something — anything — we could use in print.
The chancellor had made it clear that failure was not an option.
I opened the program, which had been thrust though the glass window of the box office with my ticket. It explained that Damon Von Tussel had been a wunderkind of sorts, publishing a critically celebrated novel, The Medusa Variation, while in his twenties. The novel was about a young wounded soldier who takes a position as secretary to a crusty old retired colonel writing his memoirs. The soldier helps the colonel go through a lifetime of material — letters, diaries, military paperwork, news clippings, and more; their resulting conversations attempted to make sense of war but inevitably failed. Eventually the colonel commits suicide and the young soldier promises to share his story with the world.
The novel struck a chord with those haunted by Vietnam, became an instant bestseller, and won him numerous awards. Academics were intrigued by the philosophical premise as well as the novel's metafictional structure, which constructed a memoir through myriad textual fragments, and scholars began churning out a veritable cornucopia of work on Von Tussel's book. After several decades of silence, he had recently stunned the literary world by producing a controversial array of prose pieces. The book, In Medias Res, was comprised of stories without beginnings or ends, which he called "irrelevant for the new millennium" in a round of interviews showcasing his abrasive and grandiose personality. None of the characters were named, he explained further, in order to allow the reader to "imagine their own protagonist." Devotees had even gone so far as to claim that he had created a new genre, the "medion."
The program didn't reprise the rumors that although Von Tussel had been offered faculty positions by all of the best creative writing programs, his classes were always taught by others. Von Tussel had never shown up on campus to fulfill a single teaching obligation. Accordingly, the educational gigs dried up. For years he had been a recluse, holed up in a Tribeca loft in New York City, so everyone was shocked when Damon emerged to publicize In Medias Res. There was also no hint at the fact that Damon had begun to act out during his year-long book tour, something I wasn't sure the chancellor was aware of. While many events went off without a hitch and audiences raved about his charming performances, other reports depicted him sneering at interviewers, turning belligerent with fans, cutting readings short, or not showing up at all. There were those who delighted in reporting on social media which Damon Von Tussel had appeared in their reading — #angelDVT or #devilDVT. Such attendees were more fascinated by the potential behavioral issues than the literary ones. His unpredictability only contributed to his mystique.
I was not much of a fan, but here I was, plotting ways to get close to him like a groupie. The things you must do in the hopes of getting tenure.
I waited, checking the stage door incessantly until it was time for Damon Von Tussel to take the stage. A slender man in a dark suit punctuated by a green bow tie meandered through a gushing introduction, his hands shaking so hard that he dropped his index cards and had to scoop them up from the stage. I suspected the spill brought us to the end much more quickly than we might otherwise have dared hope for.
"Without further ado," he said when he stood up, "the amazing Damon Von Tussel."
The author strode onto the stage, waving energetically. He set his book down with a thud on the black lectern and loosened the tie he wore with his blue suit.
"Good evening," he said into the microphone. His voice was low and raspy, advertising years of whiskey and cigars. "Thanks for that generous introduction," he said, glancing back into the wings. "Far better than I deserve." He gazed out into the audience, turning his head slowly to take in the whole crowd and smiled. "And thank you, kind folks, for coming out on this snowy evening. I know it wasn't the easiest trek to make, and I appreciate you being here."
Looked like enchanting Damon was in the house tonight. I could practically feel the #angelDVT tweets blossoming out in cyberspace.
"Here's something from my latest book, In Medias Res," he said, then donned a pair of glasses — an exact duplication of Papa Hemingway's, if I wasn't mistaken — and opened the book.
The stage lights were lowered except for the circle of light around Von Tussel's broad, muscular figure. Velvet curtains hung motionless in the background. There was nowhere to look but at him. He read slowly from the open book in his left hand. The right hand stroked his white beard from time to time, but otherwise, he was still. The energy swelling and filling the room arose from only his words.
I had to admit, he had enormous charisma.
He had us right where he wanted us. The audience actively responded to his words throughout — laughing at the humorous parts, gasping at the shocking parts — and rewarded him with loud applause when his final story came to a close. He nodded and set the book down on the lectern. As the noise subsided, he removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes for a moment, then looked expectantly out into the darkness.
The jittery man with the bow tie hurried back onstage to pump Damon's hand. He said a few words to him privately before stepping up to the microphone. "Thank you for a stellar reading," he enthused to the author before addressing the crowd. "Mr. Von Tussel will now take questions from the audience."
We all waited as people made their way down the row and lined up behind the microphone which had been placed in the aisle by an unobtrusive staff member.
A short man in a plaid sport coat and fedora smiled widely at the author. "Congratulations, Mr. Von Tussel, on your new book. I loved it."
Damon inclined his head in thanks.
"I'm wondering why there were so many years between The Medusa Variation and In Medias Res."
The author shrugged. "Many people have asked me that. All I can say is the muse works in mysterious ways."
A ripple of laughter cut through the room despite Damon's somewhat dismissive tone.
"But what were you doing for all of those years?"
Damon glared at him. "Living," he said, curtly. "How about you?"
The questioner timidly thanked him, and the person in line behind him took his place. I tuned out for the next few questions, checking the doorway to backstage again. Still guarded. Those guys were good. When I finally turned my attention back to Damon, a petite redhead in a navy coat asked something about the idea for the book.
Damon threw his hands into the air and sighed. He leaned into the microphone and barked, "I've answered these questions a thousand times. Do an internet search, for God's sakes. Ask me something meaningful!"
The woman, clearly about to cry, began apologizing, but he held up his hand, cutting her off. "Forget it." He whirled around, scraping the book off of the lectern with a jerky movement and charging offstage.
The room fell silent for a moment, then murmurs began to swell into excited commotion. It was clear the author wasn't coming back. People stood to leave.
I glanced over at the stage door, where the security guy had a hand over his earpiece and was listening intently. He abruptly turned and went backstage.
Grabbing my coat and bag, I followed him down the short hallway, passing a small shadowy niche on the left side, probably intended for short-term prop storage. Perfect. I slid into it and glanced around the area.
To the right, in a long rectangular space, individuals were speaking animatedly with each other or talking into cell phones. Damon strode through the crowd, cutting a clean swath right down the middle as people moved out of his way, and entered a room at the end of the corridor. He slammed the door. A handful of people followed, as if pulled along in his wake, and someone banged on the door until a roar emerged, telling them to leave him alone. Tally Bendel squeezed her way to the front and turned around to face the people standing there.
"Let's give Mr. Von Tussel a break, shall we? I'll see if he can talk to you later, but for now, please give him some space. Help yourself to a coffee on your way out." She gestured toward the area on the right. "It's by the far wall."
Slowly, the others did as she asked. She knocked on the door again, identifying herself. The door cracked open slightly. She spoke through the opening in a low voice. I couldn't hear what she was saying, but after a minute, the door slammed again, and Tally left.
This was my chance. I moved quickly down the corridor until I was in front of the door. I cupped my hand and listened for a second, but I couldn't hear anything. I knocked gently. There was no answer. I twisted the door handle, but it was locked. There was nothing else to do but return to the niche and try again later.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Art Of Vanishing"
Copyright © 2017 Cynthia Kuhn.
Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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