Reviewed by Rich Magahiz
The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day is set up as a crime novel where the reader has no doubt as to who committed the crime in question or how. Still, the reader feels a lot of suspense as the main character, Amelia Emmet, tries to unravel various mysteries that her near-fatal shooting and the suicide of the shooter brings to the surface. Some of the mysteries are quite clear to her (“Why was she chosen to be a victim?”) while others only just come into focus as she sorts out her new life (“Can she still be attractive to men? Can she trust the people around her?”).
When Amelia returns to the college where she works as a professor of sociology, it does not take long for her to learn the limitations of her body now racked with chronic pain, or to discover the pervasiveness of the suspicion the shooting has attached to her. She takes on a graduate student, Nath Barber, who takes up part of the investigation as a sort of personal mission. The story is told in sections from the point of view of Amelia and that of Nath, each absorbed in the search for answers and each one encountering ways in which the trauma has left marks on the faculty, staff, and students of the college as well.
In the course of the story we meet a number of characters with motivations that seem less than completely wholesome. Even before the shooting, there was a time when Amelia had taken up with the head of her department, with some unresolved emotions after it ended, and now she is surprised to find out just how much his feelings have changed. There’s also an eager newspaper reporter who takes a romantic interest in her, her fellow department members who display a whole spectrum of collegiality and rivalry, one student Nath meets with a previously unsuspected extra share of wealth and influence, and the smarmy head of the campus suicide hotline. At one point, Amelia questions the motivations of Nath himself. Themes of male gender roles and of professorial authority run through a number of scenes, lending them more intellectual weight.
Readers expecting a thriller packed with action, featuring lots of flashy violence and deep conspiracies threatening to bring down the institution may have to shift mental gears to get into the more low-key, path this book takes instead. I was happy reading the scenes set in the classroom and among the administrators owing to my own undergraduate degree from a small Chicago-area college along with the years I spent teaching at another school.
Towards the end there is one big watery action scene which takes nearly all the characters we have met and puts them in a very bad place. Amelia has learned about a hidden betrayal that ends up propelling the players to the climax. It had me wondering, will the author pull her punches at the critical moment? And how will the characters work out their motivations when everything comes out? In the end I felt this climax delivered fairly well on my expectations, with only one point which felt like a stretch.
If, as I expect, more novels by Lori Rader-Day come out I would be interested to see how they turn out as compared to this nicely written debut.
Rich Magahiz is a contributing editor of LitChat. Read his complete bio here.