BAD TROUBLE IN THE BERKELEY HILLS

The Savage Professor: A Novel by Robert Roper

Pros: East Bay local color

Cons: buckets of blood and other carnage

What overcame my aversion to contributing to the fascination with serial killers enough to read The Savage Professor by Robert Roper (Nabokov in America, Mexico Days) was the local color. Epidemiologist Anthony Landau, the titular professor, lives in Berkeley. I think he earned his Ph.D. there, but has been a professor on “soft money” (grants) at UCSF, de facto the medical school of the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and did early AIDS epidemiology.

Like many UCB professors, Anthony Landau lives in the hills and has a Latina house-cleaner. The latter (Elfridia Mattos) turns out to be the first victim of a serial killer, though the first dead body, which Landau finds in his bed is Samantha Bernstein Beevors, a former protégé and bedmate who turned on Landau and nearly scuttled his career with accusations of sexual abuse… but continued to bed not only Landau, but his son, Jad, now a general practitioner.

Anthony Landau is the prime suspect for a string of eviscerating homicides of women. The Savage Professor is unlike Kafka’s The Trial in that Landau is quite aware of the crimes for which he is suspected by Alameda County (Oakland as well as Berkeley) law enforcement personnel and has already been convicted by local news media.

The expensive lawyers he has retained are not convinced of his innocence, but work hard to present Landau in palatable forms (as well as representing him in court, securing him bail, albeit in the amount of two million dollars). Landau is mildly terrified of being convicted for brutal murders, but is still bemused by police and his attorneys.

There is way too much blood for me (and, OK, for Landau, whose international research has exposed him to seeing corpses, though not ripped apart ones of people he knows), and I don’t particularly like the protagonist (Professor Landau), despite resemblances to Oliver Sacks and Andrew Moss* (such as having a long career in the US, but remaining a British citizen, like both of them, being big (within the range of “hulking”) and being a swimmer like Sacks), but besides the local color of interest to me as someone who was a post-doc at UCB and lived in Berkeley a year before that, there is the stinging portrayal of the high costs of being a suspect in the system of American “justice” that includes rapid conviction by news media.

The characters other than Anthony Landau are not very well developed, and the answer to the “Whodunit?” question is not an answer I like. There is certainly some similarity between the puzzle of murders and the puzzles of epidemiology (not least focus on fatalities).

BTW, the book reaches as far north as Martinez, as far south as Fruitvale (within Oakland), but not across the bay to the west, nor the Sacramento River to the north. Also, though there are many undergraduate students in Berkeley, there are none in the book. Landau descends from the hills to shop, but lives in the least urban part of Berkeley.

One minor irritant is the repetition of the insulting (in the view of Taiwanese speakers) label “Min-hua” for a language, with “Hokkien” popping up seemingly as a different language (“Taiwanese” and “Holo” are other labels for the same language.)

 

*I first read of the book in Andrew Moss’s article in the UCB alumni magazine about finding himself the model for Landau, at

And the character Wally Winckelmann seems a version of Berkeley epidemiologist Warren WInkelstein.

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