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'The Latinist' is an academic suspense story, with just a touch of Agatha Christie

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a new suspense novel to recommend called "The Latinist." Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It's early January, a dismal time here in the Northeast, and, of course, the pandemic rages on. I think that's enough of an explanation for why I just want to hibernate and read mysteries for a while. Fortunately, the new year is starting off strong with a superb debut suspense novel by Mark Prins called "The Latinist" that's lightly reminiscent of Donna Tartt's 1992 debut, "The Secret History." Like Tartt's novel, "The Latinist" is set in the claustrophobic world of academia and is saturated with references to classical mythology. And like the best thrillers, "The Latinist" is ingenious in its sinister simplicity. Here's the premise - a Ph.D. candidate in classics at Oxford named Tessa Templeton is a rising star in her small field, namely the work of a minor Roman poet named Marius. So it's odd that some of the more humdrum graduate students in her program have landed job interviews while Tessa has received none. Still, when Tessa receives an anonymous email with a thumbnail photo of a devastating recommendation letter that her adviser has written for her, Tessa thinks it must be a practical joke. Why would her supportive adviser, professor Christopher Eccles, write a letter filled with such buzzkill phrases as, Tessa has made strides from a rocky beginning to her doctorate - and sometimes Tessa is hindered by a tendency to be argumentative? Professor Eccles' motive, we quickly learn, is obsession. He wants to keep Tessa close, toiling beside him as an adjunct at Oxford. As the truth of Eccles' erotic fixation emerges, Tessa realizes that she's as trapped as any noir character caught in Nightmare Alley. After all, her career rests in the hands of the very man who's trying to flatten it.

If your stomach clenched upon hearing that opening situation, then you're probably familiar with the mean streets and dead ends of graduate school, particularly in disciplines like classics, where the job prospects are so infinitesimal that competition is particularly cutthroat. To free herself from the trap Eccles has placed her in, Tessa must do what she does best - outthink her predatory thesis adviser.

"The Latinist" is especially fun if you like your mysteries brainy. Prins vividly conveys the fascination of the arcane, coaxing us readers deep into the weeds of Tessa's research into Marius' work. Tessa has also distinguished herself by writing a soon-to-be published paper on the Daphne and Apollo myth. That's the ancient Greek story set down most memorably by the Roman poet Ovid in his "Metamorphoses," where the nymph Daphne escapes sexual violation by the god Apollo by transforming into a laurel tree. Clearly, "The Latinist" itself is a clever updating of the Daphne and Apollo myth, a modern tale of coercive power and last-minute changes of fortune.

As it goes on, this academic suspense story also changes shape, mutating into something closer to Agatha Christie's "Murder In Mesopotamia" after Tessa flees Oxford and attaches herself to an archaeological dig near Rome. There, working largely in solitude in an eerie necropolis, she makes a spectacular discovery that just might invert the power dynamic between her and her grasping mentor.

Prins' evocative writing style makes "The Latinist" more than just a diverting contrivance. Here, for instance, is a mythologically inflected description of a visit that professor Eccles pays to his mother, who's just been transferred to a nursing home. She's been diagnosed with dementia, another kind of metamorphosis.

(Reading) The elevator dinged at the first floor. And at the third, he stepped out, following room numbers through a labyrinth of hallways. He thought of Theseus in the labyrinth, trailing Ariadne's thread behind him so that he could find his way back out when he killed the Minotaur. He was Theseus, confronting nothing less frightening, apparent. How would he get out of this? Another door, another hallway, new voices. Let this journey continue, Eccles thought. I'd love to never get there.

The grotesque metamorphosis that brings this novel to a close might have earned the notice of Ovid himself. Like the classics that inspire it, "The Latinist" is an inventive wedding of the elegant and the barbaric.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Latinist" by Mark Prins.

Tomorrow we'll remember Sidney Poitier. He died Thursday at the age of 94. He was the leading Black actor of his generation and the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for best actor. We'll listen back to the interview I recorded with him in 2000 after the publication of his autobiography. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.