Book Review: The Black Hour
By Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books, 2014
Lori Rader-Day’s thrillingly good debut mystery novel, The Black Hour, turns on a dolefully touchstone issue in the 21st century: school shootings. The school in question is Chicago’s Rothbert University, and the shooting in question had only one casualty (besides the shooter, who killed himself): sociology professor Amelia Emmet, who was critically injured by this student she’d didn’t know and had never seen before.
As the book opens, it’s been almost a year since the shooting, and Emmet has taken that time to recover, going through extensive physical therapy in a grueling process that finds her back on campus still using painkillers to get through the day. Emmet is a wonderful creation on Rader-Day’s part, easily the most memorably-realized character in the book, and when she finally does return to her old job at the university, she’s naturally full of bitter curiosity about the tragedy that struck her out of nowhere, as she expresses with typical bluntness while having a beer with her friend and colleague Joss:
“From everyone else’s perspective, I’m back, so it’s over,” I said. “But that’s not how it feels.”
She nodded long and slow, and reached for my beer. “I’ll drink this, so you can keep your promise to Corinne.”
“I feel like I did die, like I was dead and you all forgot to tell me. And when I came back today, you clapped and smiled, but you looked like – like you’d seen a ghost.” I grabbed the beer out of her hand and sat back in the booth. The pain meds had begun to ebb a bit. I felt sharp, poised. Ready. I wasn’t quite sure what I was ready for.“Ten months lost, Joss. I have a few questions.”
Her questions start out as simple as universal as those of any violence-survivor: why did this happen? Who was my attacker? Why me? And the stroke of genius in Rader-Day’s book is that Amelia Emmet isn’t the only person asking those questions; she has a new teaching assistant, a graduate student named Nathaniel Barber who’s decided, for reasons of his own, to make Professor Emmet’s shooting the subject of his dissertation. Barber has been abjured to channel his naturally aggressive curiosity, to shape and guide it:
“Dear Mr. Barber. The point isn’t necessarily to choose what you’re looking for, but to choose to look. If you choose to in a way that is serious, consistent, methodological and scientific, you will find. If you look with open eyes and open mind, Mr. Barber, you will find a line of questioning that you can expand and explore.”
Barber decides to put these methodological techniques to use in deciphering what happened to Emmet, and being the object of such obviously multi-motivated study naturally doesn’t sit well with her; Rader-Day does a brilliant job of conveying the prickly tension between these two. Emmet hasn’t done the best job of dealing with her own trauma or the irritating holes that still remain in her memory of what happened to her:
I reached into my memory, pushed past the white room, the warm hand resting on me, the ambulance, the red carpet rushing toward my face, the dark outline of the student, the gun rising out of the shadow – past that, past that. Past the stuff I couldn’t quite remember into the stuff I didn’t want to.
The book’s ingenious premise makes it inevitable that the second and third acts will be veritably teeming with suspense (who knows more than they’re saying? What, beyond random chance, was behind the shooting, and the shooter?), and Rader-Day manipulates and sharpens the suspense like she’s been doing this for forty years. Which makes it delightful to contemplate what she’ll be writing in forty years.