We learn by doing, right? So it makes perfect sense to learn principles of logic by solving a problem, right? So a professor giving his class a real-life problem on the first day of class — that should be okay, right?
It all sounds good until you learn that the problem is to find a missing girl by the end of the term — and if the class fails, the girl dies.
This odd pedagogical path is the plot line of Will Lavender's debut novel, Obedience. It's a terrific book, part cat-and-mouse mystery and part psychological study of group behavior. The professor, a shadow character who hasn't left a carbon footprint during his years at the university, is either a brilliant academic or a sadistic monster.
Lavender sets the story at a fictional university in southern Indiana and sees it through the eyes of three students, Mary, Brian and Dennis. Professor Leonard Williams remains an aloof figure, croaking riddles and sending enigmatic e-mails to the class. The history among Mary, Brian and Dennis at first forces them off into corners to work alone. But as the mystery gnaws at them, they begin to collaborate.
The professor's puzzle eerily resembles a real-life missing-person case from 15 years before. Some of the characters of that unsolved case crop up in the new disappearance, and the students are baffled. Is this real or just an exercise? They soon lose sight of the line between reality and fantasy.
The professor himself becomes a large part of the puzzle. His one book, a study of that earlier case, is gibberish. As the students try to solve the mystery of the missing girl, they wonder: Are the people they talk to real or actors hired to play a part? Is the professor real? Are their friends real? Soon, they all begin to doubt each other.
There's a slight letdown in the third act. But for that minor flaw, Obedience is a wonderful book with a strong emotional punch at the end.
William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.