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Death of a Department Chair

A Novel

Lynn C. Miller

Publication Year: 2006

In Death of a Department Chair, protagonist Miriam Held recounts the events of the previous fall when she was suspected of killing Isabel Vittorio, the chair of her department and her former lover. The controversial and contrary Vittorio was, at the time of her death, attempting to block the hire of a brilliant African American female professor. Already under siege for her attempts to increase diversity on campus, Miriam is forced to defend her reputation and her life. As she searches for the truth, Miriam amasses evidence that leaves few friends and colleagues free from suspicion. Both a classic whodunit and a witty satire, Death of a Department Chair dramatizes how communities can create the very climate of mistrust and paranoia that victimizes them.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page

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pp. vii

Many thanks go to my wonderfully supportive editor, Raphael Kadushin, and theUniversity of Wisconsin Press. I am grateful to the early readers of this novel, particularly Claire Van Ens, Lee Potts, Christie Logan, Julie Williams, and Laura Furman. Much appreciation goes to Wellspring House in western Massachusetts, where...

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Editor’s Note

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pp. 3-6

When my friends first asked me to chronicle the misfortunes of last autumn, I refused. For who wishes to revisit the end of her world? The moment when the tenor of life forever changes its pitch is not one to sing about. But I found I could not forget, either— those events still haunt me, still hover in the atmosphere as the last...

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pp. 7-15

The sassy cartoon on the newspaper’s op-ed page spewed its contents into Miriam Held’s eyes, which, as if allergic to its message, immediately began to itch and water. Flanked by the distinctive tower of Austin University, its sides overlaid with greenbacks rather than granite, a bloated, jagged-toothed rabbit raised a carrot labeled...

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pp. 16-24

Paranoid” was one description of Miriam’s state of mind two hours later as she closed the door of her office on the seventh floor of Helmsley Hall and locked it. Her heart jittered and jumped like a gerbil on a wheel. Isabel, murdered. A nervy cocktail of shock and dread coursed through her system. None of them would be safe...

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pp. 25-33

Fiona left Bettina in the coffee shop and made her way to her ten a.m. class in a confounded state. She planned to spend the time providing a forum for those who needed to discuss the tragedy. Yet her steps dragged as she neared Helmsley Hall; after what had happened, she felt an aversion to the building itself. Isabel, dead. No...

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pp. 34-52

Aday after the discovery of Isabel’s body, Dennis lay in bed with Carter, his longtime partner. He opened one eye cautiously, hoping it wasn’t anytime near morning. A shaft of light streaked across the bed; somewhere outside the window a lone cardinal loudly defended its turf. Dennis blinked and opened both eyes to...

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pp. 53-58

Ran into Hannah Weinstein this evening in the downstairs lounge. Exclamations all around: so great to see you, didn’t know you were presenting at this conference, etc. etc. The usual babble. Ages & ages since I’ve seen her. Since that seminar on discourse theory four years ago. The one at Rice....

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pp. 59-72

On Friday Bettina brooded at her computer. She’d been stuck for two months on a section of her VirginiaWoolf book, one comparing several stage and film adaptations of Orlando. She staggered to her feet, stiff and clumsy after hours glued to her chair. What was the point? Bloomsbury scholars spewed a continuous stream of verbiage...

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pp. 73-91

Fiona drove to Bergstrom International to pick up Paula Fabian on Sunday. A high pressure dome had settled on Austin, and the mild, clear weather continued. Fiona listened to the golden oldies station and sang along cheerily to “Hotel California” as she drove out Riverside Drive to 71, the land flattening as she headed...

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pp. 92-104

It’s the second session of summer school. No one around. The search committee won’t review the files until mid- August—that’s the very earliest. H. seems relieved. She & I meet in Albuquerque (on 19th) & drive up to Santa Fe. Huge reprieve from the heat: cold at night, terrific stars, dry...

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pp. 105-125

Marvin’s claim that Isabel had created a “climate of suspicion” particularly troubled her. For while Isabel might have been guilty of zealously hoarding power and making autocratic decisions, others around her augmented this culture of paranoia and envy as well. Unhappily, Miriam recognized that she and Bettina had recently contributed...

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pp. 126-150

Reggie drops by today, a week before her appointment. I’m on the phone with my editor at Cambridge, begging for just a little more time on the wretched book manuscript, when I see her hovering around Anna’s desk....

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pp. 151-163

No sign of Reggie since classes began: oh, bliss. But then Thursday she appears at my office door (no warning & not my office hours). Her little face—surly & resentful—stares at me as I work my way through a stack of mail. She says nothing, silence the biggest demand for attention, I always...

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pp. 164-186

The Sunday after Isabel’s memorial, Miriam, Vivian, Bettina, and Fiona met in the evening at Daphne’s house for potluck. As soon as they had consumed a hodgepodge of salads, fresh bread, chicken casserole, and chocolate-pecan ice cream (this last a homemade concoction of Marvin’s he had festively packaged and sent...

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pp. 187-199

I didn’t . . . I wasn’t spying on Dr. Vittorio . . . Well, sometimes we just happened to be in the same place. Yeah, we’d had kind of a rocky time of it. We used to be really tight, you know? I felt like I could talk to her. And she was really smart. And sharp. I liked how she dressed and the way she walked and stood—she was just so strong and so...

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pp. 200-229

After repeated calls to Isabel’s house failed to roust Hannah, Miriam drove on Tuesday morning across town to Tarrytown, an affluent west Austin enclave. Property values had risen astronomically in central Austin neighborhoods like this one and Hemphill Park, where Miriam lived, pricing such areas out of the reach of most professors...

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pp. 230-240

On Saturday, Miriam helped Graciela Brown, Isabel’s sister, box up the remainder of Isabel’s effects from her old office. Miriam, on the faculty’s insistence, planned to execute her occupation of the chair’s suite the following day....

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Editor’s Afterword

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pp. 241-242

And so, life goes on, but things do not stay the same. Now, from my desk in the chair’s office, I cannot help but look over my shoulder often and anxiously. I have rearranged the office and replaced the furniture, but the ghost of Isabel stays with me. Sometimes I see her, the slim torso seated at a table, poring over a reference...

E-ISBN-13: 9780299219734
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299219741

Publication Year: 2006