Originally printed February 22, 2011.
"What possessed you to think you could write a novel?" I half-kiddingly asked University of Iowa political science professor Mike Lewis-Beck in a phone interview last week.
After laughing, Lewis-Beck explained that his novelistic aspirations actually go back more than 20 years, back to when he wrote the first full draft of his newly published "Death Walks the Riviera."
Back in the late 1980s, Lewis-Beck was a fellow at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. While there, he realized that the study center would make an interesting setting for a murder mystery. Modeling his style after the academic novels of David Lodge and stories of Richard Russo, Lewis-Beck invented a series of fictional murders in what he renamed the Calendal Foundation. He then imagined how the assembled scholars -- philosophers, sociologists, literary critics, pianists, historians, oboists and linguists -- would react to the killings.
"I would describe the book as a comedy of manner," Lewis-Beck said. "It's about how amusing academic, writers and artists are when you look at them from the outside. And I include myself in that list. We're a pretty funny crowd -- funny in both senses of the word."
Lewis-Beck said the writing process had been enjoyable, but he put the novel in his desk drawer when he got back to Iowa City.
He only got it out again after his wife, an adjunct professor of book design, asked if she could use the manuscript as a teaching tool for her students -- showing them how a book moves from words on a screen to a bound object of art that authors can hold proudly in their hands.
Expecting to cringe at the clunkiness of his 20-year-old prose, Lewis-Beck instead found himself impressed with a storyline and characters that he had put out of his mind.
He was pleased the novel was to be put into print, but he wasn't sure how his story would hold up under the critical gaze of some of his more literary-minded colleagues.
"I reached the point in which I said to myself, 'I'm not ashamed of this book,'" Lewis-Beck said. "But I was frankly worried that it wasn't good enough to show to people of that caliber."
The overall local response, however, as been quite positive.
Holly Carver, former director of the UI Press, says the book has a "gripping storyline, real-time dialogue and snarky insights into academic self-obsession."
Jim Harris, former owner of Prairie Lights Books, calls it, "Delightful, insightful, vengeful!"
And UI professor of English Garrett Stewart writes, "If academic thriller sounds like an oxymoron, that's because you haven't yet sampled this book."
Lewis-Beck will read from "Death Walks the Riviera" -- as well as be available to talk about novel writing, political science or a host of other topics -- at 7 today in Prairie Lights Books.
Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-887-5435.