Dominance: A Puzzle Thriller

Overview

Fifteen years ago, Alex Shipley was part of a special night class taught by Richard Aldiss, a re-nowned literature professor— and convicted murderer. Lecturing the group of nine hand-picked students from a video feed in his prison cell, the professor spoke only of one novel by a famously reclusive author, and he challenged the class to solve the mystery of that writer’s identity once and for all.

Today, Alex is a Harvard professor who made her name as a member of that class, and...

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Dominance: A Novel

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Overview

Fifteen years ago, Alex Shipley was part of a special night class taught by Richard Aldiss, a re-nowned literature professor— and convicted murderer. Lecturing the group of nine hand-picked students from a video feed in his prison cell, the professor spoke only of one novel by a famously reclusive author, and he challenged the class to solve the mystery of that writer’s identity once and for all.

Today, Alex is a Harvard professor who made her name as a member of that class, and as the woman who helped set Richard Aldiss free. But when one of her fellow alums is murdered, can she use what she learned from Aldiss to stop a killer—before each of the night class students is picked off, one by one?

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The self-reflective process of literary criticism known as 'deconstructing the text' becomes a diabolical game of murder in Dominance, an academic mystery by Will Lavender that gleefully illustrates the dangers of losing yourself in a book. . . . Lavender has the devious skills to write a twisted puzzle mystery."The New York Times Book Review

“Mr. Lavender should be able to write his third, fourth and fifth puzzle-crazy potboilers on the visceral strength of the first two. . . . Dominance is quick and complicated, in a wishfully Da Vinci Code way. But it is also very narrow, à la Agatha Christie . . . Part of Mr. Lavender’s sleight of hand involves flattering the reader’s keen intelligence . . . His book is tightly edited, with a lot of choppy leaps between 1994 and the present, and with a lot of white space (à la James Patterson) to accompany them. And he writes with real enthusiasm . . . Yes, this book’s obsession with riddles and game playing is what one of its characters calls “high nerd,” . . . But it is sincere and not just a feat of cookie cutting.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Lavender's novel is a literary labyrinth, the kind made popular by Jorge Luis Borges, without ever losing the pace or the pleasure of a taut thriller.”Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"Silence of the Lambs, Agatha Christie, and maybe Pynchon are prerequisites for this thriller set in small-town academia.”San Antonio Express-News

“With Dominance, Will Lavender has written a fascinating novel. If you like puzzles you will enjoy this book. If you are a fan of twists you will like this book. If you like both puzzles AND twists then you will probably flip over this book. It will have you guessing until the final page.”Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Dominance is a twisting, tilting, hall-of-mirrors funhouse of a book . . . [the plot] unfolds like origami with razor-sharp edges . . . [Lavender] plays fair with the evidence, but he treats his readers as intelligent beings, allowing each of us to puzzle out the answer without spoon-feeding the solution or killing the mystery with excessive foreshadowing as many page-turner authors often do. . . . Dominance reveals its secret stealthily, maintaining the mystery and suspense of the present while divulging the secrets of the past. That is a tricky tightrope, and it is marvelously executed.”Louisville Courier-Journal

“If anyone out there is looking for a good summer book, maybe a beach read, instead of reading something frivolous and light, why not try something that will actually make you think? Will Lavender writes puzzle books: half mystery, half thriller, with a literary twist thrown in for good measure. His newest book, Dominance, will make you think. A lot.”Fort Worth Fiction

“If you enjoy puzzling twists and turns, and suspense that doesn’t let up even on the last page, you should delve into Dominance.”Bowling Green Daily News

“[A] taut second standalone. . . . Full-bodied characters, an effective gothic atmosphere, and a deliciously creepy, unpredictable finale.”Publishers Weekly

“Lavender is Houdini-level dexterous at the sleight-of-verb necessary to keep the reader guessing, doubting, perplexed and attentive throughout the book. Characters lie, memories lie, senses lie, and underpinning it all is the game-that’s-not-a-game, this enigmatic Procedure, that pulls like an uncontrollable undertow from beyond the grave. Who is Paul Fallows? Maybe the students in Dominance would have been better off never knowing the answer, but Lavender’s readers will be abundantly rewarded.”Bookpage

Publishers Weekly
A college campus, as it did in Lavender's debut, Obedience, provides the backdrop for the author's taut second stand-alone. In 1994, as an undergrad at Vermont's Jasper College, Alex Shipley was part of a controversial night class, Unraveling a Literary Mystery, taught from prison by literature professor Richard Aldiss, who was serving a life sentence for murdering two female grad students 12 years before. The class's mission: to learn the identity of reclusive author Paul Fallows, whose two novels were clues to his identity and were best understood by playing a game called the Procedure. Alex's investigation not only uncovered Fallows's identity and a masterful literary hoax but also exonerated Aldiss of the murders. Now a Harvard professor, Alex returns to Jasper after her classmates in Unraveling a Literary Mystery start turning up murdered, their bodies arranged the same way the two grad students were. Full-bodied characters, an effective gothic atmosphere, and a deliciously creepy, unpredictable finale will please fans of academic thrillers. (July)
Kirkus Reviews

Lavender (Obedience, 2008) takes on another puzzle-within-a-thriller, also set on a college campus.

Dr. Alex Shipley was a member of a special class of nine hand-picked students chosen for a night course taught by a former professor and convicted murderer, Dr. Richard Aldiss. Aldiss, who has made the study of the reclusive author Paul Fallows his life's work, stands convicted of killing two graduate students. He's set to teach the class from prison, under the watchful eyes of his guards. Naturally, it's no ordinary class: Aldiss has sprinkled clues throughout the course, hoping to lead one student on a journey; in this case, it's the beautiful Alex. She was spectacularly successful. Not only did she unlock Aldiss' puzzle and help him win acquittal, but now Alex has returned to Jasper College to solve the death of a former classmate whose murder is a disturbing replica of the grad students' deaths. When the remainder of the nine still living come together in a spooky mansion replete with a dean who likes to wear makeup, it is soon clear that there are strange things going bump in the night. With more bodies turning up, Alex finds that the killer's true intention may be more personal than she might have ever imagined. The story is twisty and turny, with all kinds of side roads, but it's mostlyThe Big Chillwithout the humor or sympathetic characters. The premise of the class, the police's fawning reliance on a professor to solve their case, the mystery of exactly who Fallows might really be and the cast of weird characters come together in a story that often calls for the reader to suspend all rational thought. With action that veers from the original Aldiss class to the present and back, Lavender manages to maintain the novel's taut, sinister atmosphere from the first page to the last. But in the end, the story is unsettling, unsatisfying and unbelievable.

Readers who loved Lavender's first book will doubtless delight in this one, while those who did not will find his latest extremely tough reading.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451617306
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/11/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 353
  • Sales rank: 819,317
  • Product dimensions: 5.66 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Will Lavender is the author of the novel Obedience, which was translated into fourteen languages and was a New York Times bestseller. He is at work on his third novel, The Descartes Circle.
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Read an Excerpt

1

Just after dark they rolled in the television where the murderer would appear. It was placed at the front of the lecture hall, slightly off center so the students in back could see. Two men wearing maintenance uniforms checked the satellite feed and the microphones, then disappeared as silently as they had come. It was now five minutes before the class was to begin, and everything was ready.

This was the first class of its kind, and its novelty—or perhaps its mystery—made it the most talked-about ever offered at tiny Jasper College. As mandated by the school president, there were nine students in the classroom. They were the best of the best in the undergrad literature program at Jasper. Now, on the first night of the semester, they waited anxiously for their professor to emerge on the screen.

The class was LIT 424: Unraveling a Literary Mystery. It had been offered at night because this was the only viable time, the only hour when the warden would allow the murderer free to teach. He would teach, if you believed the rumors, from a padded cell. Others said he would be in front of a greenscreen, with special effects to replicate a lectern before him—an illusion of a classroom. The rest claimed he would simply be shackled to his chair in an orange jumpsuit because state law prohibited anything else. They had to remember what this man had done, these people said. They had to remember who he was.

The room was warm with the closeness of bodies. The chalkboard seemed to glisten, even though the Vermont night outside was bitterly cold. The quads were mostly silent, save for the protesters who stood the stipulated two hundred yards from Culver Hall, where the night class would be held. The class met in the basement of Culver for this reason: the powers-that-be at Jasper did not want the protesters to be able to see what was happening on that TV screen.

The few students who were out at that cold hour witnessed the nervous candlelight of the protest vigil from a distance, through the copse of beech and oak that dotted the woodsy campus. A light snow fell, flakes rushing upward in the January wind like motes of dust. Not far away, Lake Champlain purred in the wind. It was as if, one freshman said as he looked down at the scene from a high dormitory window, someone were about to be executed.

Just beyond the protesters, in a building that was dark save for a few bottom-floor lights, a pair of state policemen sat in a room the size of a broom closet, drinking coffee and watching their own blank feed on a tiny screen.

Unraveling a Literary Mystery—this too had been contested. The president of the college chose the title because it sounded to him fitting for what the professor had in mind. But in fact the president did not know exactly what the class would entail. He could not know; the murderer had only hinted at a “literary game” his students would play in the class. About his syllabus he had spoken to no one.

It was this inability to even guess at what was about to happen that silenced the classroom now. In the weeks before the semester had begun, when they went home to their families on Christmas break, the students who had registered for LIT 424 had time to think. To weigh their decision to take this strange course. They wondered if something could go wrong in that lecture hall, if their professor could somehow . . . it sounded crazy, yes. Most of them did not say it aloud, or if they did, they spoke only to their roommates or their closest friends. Slight whispers, torn away by the wind, carried off into nothingness.

If he could somehow get out.

This was what they were thinking in those final seconds. Some of them talked about their other classes that semester, flipped through textbooks and highlighted paragraphs in trembling arcs of yellow. But mostly they sat, saying nothing. They stared at the dead television screen. They wondered, and they waited.

Finally the television went to a deeper black, and everyone sat up straight. Then the box began to hum, an electrical, nodish oohing, a kind of flatline that moved left to right across the room. Their professor—the MacArthur-winning genius, once a shining star at nearby Dumant University and the closest thing to celebrity a professor of literature could possibly be, the same man who had viciously murdered two graduate students twelve years before—was ready to appear.

Then the blackness dissolved and the noise died away and the professor’s face came to them on the screen. They had seen pictures of him, many of them preserved in yellowed newsprint. There were images of the man in a dark suit (at his trial), or with his wrists shackled and smiling wolfishly (moments after the verdict), or with his hair swept back, wearing a tweed jacket and a bow tie (his faculty photograph at Dumant in 1980).

Those photographs did not prepare the students for the man on the screen. This man’s face was harder, its lines deeper. He was in fact wearing a simple orange jumpsuit, the number that identified him barely hidden beneath the bottom edge of the screen. The V of his collar dipped low to reveal the curved edge of a faded tattoo just over his heart. Although the students did not yet know this, the tattoo was of the thumb-shaped edge of a jigsaw puzzle piece.

The professor’s eyes seemed to pulse. Sharp, flinty eyes that betrayed a kind of dangerous intelligence. The second the students saw him there was a feeling not of surprise, not of cold shock, but rather of This, then. This is who he is. One girl sitting toward the back whispered, “God, I didn’t know he was so . . .” And then another girl, a friend sitting close by, finished, “Sexy.” The two students laughed, but quietly. Quietly.

Now the professor sat forward. In the background the students could see his two prison guards, could make out everything but their faces—the legs of their dark slacks, the flash of their belt buckles, and the leathery batons they carried in holsters. One of them stood with legs spread wide and the other was more rigid, but otherwise they mirrored each other. The professor himself was not behind a pane of glass; the camera that was trained on him was not shielded in any way. He simply sat at a small table, his uncuffed hands before him, his breathing slow and natural. His face bore the slightest hint of a smile.

“Hello,” he said softly. “My name is Richard Aldiss, and I will be your professor for Unraveling a Literary Mystery. Speak so I can hear you.”

“Hello, Professor,” someone said.

“We’re here,” said another.

Aldiss leaned toward a microphone that must have been just out of the camera’s view. He nodded and said, “Very good. I can hear you and you can hear me. I can see you and you can see me. Now, let us begin.”

© 2011 Will Lavender

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