‘PhDeath:’ The NYU Murder Mystery

Alexandra Pierson
NYU students will find the setting of PHDeath especially relatable, it being the NYU campus.

James P. Carse, professor emeritus of history and literature of religion at NYU, knows the university better than anyone. He was the director of Religious Studies for 30 years, and his time at NYU in what he calls “the most famous neighborhood in the world” is the inspiration behind his latest book, “PhDeath: The Puzzler Murders.” The novel is a murder mystery set on the campus of a major research university, conveniently situated around a square that is both park and performance space. Sound familiar?

When a series of word puzzles are emailed to the entire university and members of the faculty begin dying under suspicious circumstances, it is up to a committee of their surviving colleagues to solve these puzzles and expose issues of university corruption before it is too late. Following a reading at Tribeca’s Mysterious Bookshop, WSN had the privilege of meeting Carse to discuss his most recent publication.

Washington Square News: Is “PhDeath” based on NYU?

James Carse: Yeah. It’s based on NYU, but not exactly NYU … It could apply to a lot of universities. In fact, one of the reasons for choosing to use NYU in this way is that it does resemble a great number of large, especially research institutions. You know, big, high-powered, word status, world-class type universities.

WSN: Where did your idea for this story come from?

JC: I was at NYU for 30 years, and the NYU faculty is full of people who were all born smart. They were mostly nerdy in school, they were never really popular kids, you know, very few athletes and so on, and with a lot of peculiar characteristics — in other words, colorful. So I found myself living in this community of really unusual, intelligent and interesting people. So you put it all together like that, it’s just like a huge pool of stories waiting to be told … I know a lot about their lives and the problems they have, and the problems they have with the university, so it kind of came from that. [Also,] I have a lifelong fascination with puzzles [and] working things out. And so I let those two factors merge, and I thought, “Okay, I’ll write a mystery about the university.”

WSN: Are any of the characters in the book based on actual people?

JC: Yes. One is very precise: John Buttner-Janusch. He was terribly brilliant. I tell the story fairly accurately in the novel. He was brought to NYU to run a laboratory. He was a genetic anthropologist. He was always a difficult human being, steamed up … He was so difficult that when I would go into a committee meeting for the first time and I would see him there, I’d resign from the committee and leave … Well, it turned out that he was on methamphetamine. It’s exactly like I told in the story: he had the lab, he was making that stuff in the lab and he had his students sell it … The others are mostly composites of people I know. Almost everyone in the book would fit in this university. The man I dedicated the book to — Frank Peters — [is] sort of the model for Alfie O’Malley, the friend [of the protagonist].

WSN: As someone who had worked at NYU for 30 years, you probably know this institution better than anybody. What would you say has been the biggest change that you’ve seen?

JC: Oh, there are lots of changes. Sometimes I have the feeling I’ve been at five universities. Think of it like this: when I came to NYU, most of the students were first or second-generation. That is, most of my students at that time were the sons and daughters of immigrants. And, of those, most were Jewish … I would say 70 or 80 percent of the student body was Jewish … Then there was a very large Catholic group right after that, and then it slowly turned Eastern, more and more Asian and so on. When I left there were a lot of students in my classes who were Indian [or] Chinese, [and there were] many more black students than I had in
the beginning.

Then there was an abrupt shift … Suddenly, kids [were] coming to college to be doctors, lawyers and so on. They were very serious about their studies, whereas the previous group came to have a great time … The next group was very quiet. They did everything you told them to … The classrooms weren’t as interesting, they wouldn’t fight with the professors. In the early, early period, I couldn’t give a lecture in which someone didn’t object.

WSN: Can you explain the role of the Puzzler and what [they] are trying to achieve?

JC: The Puzzler has a vision of the university that begins with Socrates in Athens. I think the way to describe Socrates is, there’s no such thing as Socratic thought, there’s only Socratic method, and the method is questioning … This is the vision of the Puzzler — that it begins with Socrates and continues to the present in a fairly continuous history. And the university is probably Western civilization’s greatest achievement, [and he] wants to maintain the integrity of the university … He knows that he [can’t do it] in the way that Socrates did, wandering around asking people questions — he’s got to do something better than that. So he kills people.

WSN: Can you explain the concept of thievery in the book? How is it that people are being robbed?

JC: Well, I think people are being robbed because the university is selling itself as a way to wealth, success in something. It’s not the community of discourse, of active thinking, that I think it should be and it has been over the centuries. That’s one thing that worries me a lot, and that’s why I use the notion of thievery, because it’s very expensive to get educated … When you charge someone a lot of money to teach them something useful, what you’ve done is stolen from them not just the money but the gift of being thoughtful. That’s the big thievery, not just stealing the money, but stealing your sense of wonder.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 21 print edition. Email Alexandra Pierson at [email protected] 

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