When pieces of Dean Cranston Fessing are discovered in a dumpster behind the gender-studies center at Wainscott University, having been roasted, sauteed, or baked in one delicate sauce or another, it is the best thing that ever happened to Norman de Ratour, mild-mannered recording secretary at the Museum of Man.
Dean Fessing, you see, was laying the groundwork to have the university swallow the museum, threatening not only to end the museum's sacred mission but also to downsize de Ratour out of the job he has held for more than 30 years.
De Ratour, the protagonist of "Murder in the Museum of Man," the third novel from Belmont author Alfred Alcorn, does not celebrate Fessing's demise; he is as shocked as any decent citizen of Seaboard, the somewhere-in-New-England setting of the book.
But then, he has no idea that cannibalism can lead to self-actualization.
At the beginning of the tale, de Ratour is a stuffy, lonely, frumpy, midlevel administrator at the museum. He reaches his low point when the officer investigating the butchery implies he is a suspect. But his despair quickly turns to defiance, and he decides that he himself will solve the crime. By the time he does, he has become a pistol-packing recording secretary -- decisive, dashing, and desirable.
His journey is not without peril, of course: Man-eaters are everywhere. In addition to the cannibal or cannibals at large, there are ruthless academicians and callous reporters, "the news hounds of this dog-eat-dog world." And then there are the primates living in the museum, part of an academic attempt to prove that chimps and apes actually will produce literature if they are put in a room with a bunch of computer keyboards.
Alcorn is cynical if not subtle, and he puts other things besides human flesh on a skewer. A broad range of issues is run through but none more cuttingly than the "highly evolved sensitivities" that permeate the Wainscott campus. (Wainscott is, of course, fictional but it is hard not to think about Harvard while reading this book; Alcorn is a midlevel administrator at the university's Museum of Cultural and Natural History.)
There is, for example, the oversight committee deciding whether to allow a certain archeological display in the museum. Members worry about language codes, about how a depiction of roasting boar will affect Jewish children, about whether the women will be doing the cooking, and about whether the Paleolithic wardrobe will be fake fur or real. There's also this observation from de Ratour: "It's extraordinary how easily one can become a pariah in an academic community, where everyone is supposed to be so broad-minded."
The writer's wit shines not only in his satire; he tickles his keyboard as well as wields it. He describes the somewhat simian chief of the primate pavilion as "one of those men who shave from hairline to hairline." While musing on who the killer might be, he says, "I have no wish to be fodder for the grisly mill" of the perpetrator. When a suspect is identified, he is surprised: "Murder, perhaps, but . . . haute cuisine?"
Alford likes to have his fun with the names of his characters, too, with varying degrees of success. There is a passing reference to a local newspaper columnist, Spike Manacle, which could be an allusion to the Globe's Mike Barnicle. A Japanese benefactor is named Onoyoko, which is either a play on the name of John Lennon's widow or a coincidence.
And then there is Ariel Dearth, a mustachioed Jewish law professor at Wainscott who has a knack for gaining press attention, who assembles a "team" when he takes on a case, who can find a victim inside even an admitted killer. That his initials are the same as Alan Dershowitz's seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
Less obvious is why Alford has included the character Elsbeth, who for most of the story exists only in the sorrowful memories of de Ratour. She walked out on him near the end of their college days because, well, he was a lame, straitlaced nerd who had more concern for her honor than she did. Even after 30 years, she has remained his "internal audience, even if it has meant, all along, I have been playing to an empty house." In his hour of triumph, she turns up, lovely as ever, the wealthy widow of a bozo husband, seeking forgiveness and re-entry into his life.
Such events take de Ratour's redemption too far and give a wry, biting story a mawkish ending more worthy of the primates in the writing lab than the author of this tale.