The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day

published 2014

Black Hour 1

[Dr Amelia Emmet is about to teach her first undergraduate class since returning to her university after being shot on campus]

I was early to class.

The teacher’s desk was a skinny-legged table at the front of the room, cold on the elbows and no bulk to hide nervous hands or jumping knees. I’d have to pull it together. I’d managed a rousing discussion with my grad students the night before, but these were the true customers of Rothbert’s wares. These were freshmen mostly, ripe but still attached to the vine, or sophomores shopping around. Some would be sociology majors, but some would be picking up a social science requirement …

This was the first day, and first days held promise.

They started to filter in, their hulking backpacks over their shoulders. Within a minute or so of the official start time, the front four rows were filled with beautiful youth, young people all studiously ignoring me. The promise of a new year.

Black Hour 2

observations: I first came across this book over at Col’s Criminal Library – review here, and excellent author interview here – and fully intended to read it asap: A campus crime story with a strong female lead ticks all my boxes. It slipped down the pile for no good reason, and I was only reminded of it by hearing that Ms Rader-Day is about to publish another book, so thought I’d better catch up.

And what a great book it is. For about the first three pages I resisted it (too much description of the heroine’s painful progress trying to get back to work) but soon afterwards I was completely pulled in, and I read the book in the course of a day, anxious to get back to it whenever I had to leave it for a while.

Dr Emmet was shot by a student who then killed himself: she has no idea who the student was or why he attacked her. But others in the university think there must be more to it, and she feels waves of mistrust, dislike and impatience when she finally gets herself back to her job. Her graduate teaching assistant, Nathan, turns out to be obsessed with the case, and there’s a local journalist still hanging round, convinced there is more to the story.

The narration is shared between Emmet and Nathan, and this is very effective. Both characters are very well-developed, and the setting also becomes very real. Rothbert University is a small private liberal arts college in Chicago, the kind that has a founding family and plenty of rich students with connections. The encounters between Nathan (always the scholarship boy) and a rich student are priceless: very funny and telling, while moving the plot on.
‘We pay their salaries, and our dads pay for their welfare state.’… [He] probably had conservative sound bites for all the rules he wanted to break.
The whole book is entertaining and informative, while also creating a solid sinister atmosphere.

One character in the book is a rich student whose family helped found and finance the small private college he attends – the same trope came up in Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, recently on the blog.

The solution is a touch unlikely, but frankly I enjoyed the whole book so much I would have swallowed more and worse in the way of motives. I’m really looking forward to Rader-Day’s next book, Little Pretty Things, to be published in July.

Death of the Detective was a very different Chicago novel on the blog recently, while the President’s reception in The Black Hour brought back memories of a similar event in Michael Chabon’s blog-revered Wonder Boys.

Top picture is from the LSE library, 1964, the lower one is from the Harvard-Radcliffe archives, 1950s: both a long time from the scene above, and yet students and classes don’t change that much.

There is a weird connection with Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First – I read the books close together and they are totally different, but have one striking similarity of plot.


  1. Oh, this definitely ticks my boxes too, Moira. It feels so close to home for me. I mean, not having been shot, thank goodness, but the modern campus life. And the story sounds fascinating too. This one really needs to go on my list.

    1. Margot, I think you would really like this one - though don't read it before going to your campus late at night on your own! But it's a good crime story with a nice heroine and an excellent setting. What more could we want....?

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. you might just be a tiny bit more enthusiastic about it than I was, but we're generally in agreement. Cheers for the mention!

    1. But definitely on our meeting point, and am very grateful for the tipoff.

  3. Sounds very good! And thanks for the photos (LSE is my alma mater though I think th elibrary changed a lot by the time I got there in the late 80s).

    1. I love mysteries with academic settings, and this was a good one. I'm glad it made you nostalgic - there's a whole set of old photos from the LSE Library online, you should take a look, I'm sure you'd find them entertaining. I use them occasionally and always enjoy a flick through them.

  4. Sorry to be so late to comment. This does sound like it would be good, I like two narrators, as I noted at Col's review. But I haven't added it to my piles yet and not sure when I would have time for it. I will put it on a list... and hope it shows up at the right time.

    The images are very nice.

    1. I'm hoping to read her next book soon. When she's been around a while it will be easier for you to decide whether you need to read her or not.


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