February 2008

A Milgram headache

By Will Lavender
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The two most famous social science experiments of the post-WWII era—designed, incidentally, by a pair of former high-school buddies—ended in disaster. Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment had to be shut down when the volunteer "guards" and "prisoners" plummeted into a frenzy of psychotic behaviour. And Stanley Milgram's study testing the limits of compliance with authority, in which subjects administered what they believed to be potentially life-threatening electric shocks to Milgram's confederates, led the American Psychological Association to overhaul their code of ethics. In his tautly strung debut novel, Obedience, literature professor Will Lavender tears a page out of Milgram's notebooks and sets into motion a chain of events that escalates far beyond its intended intellectual exercise.

At the first meeting of Winchester University's Logic and Reasoning 204, the enigmatic and somewhat ill-tempered professor Leonard Williams lays out a missing persons case in much the manner of television's Dr. Gregory House: Here is the background, here are some clues, figure it out in six weeks or the girl dies. Along the way, Williams doles out enough red herrings to gag a pod of dolphins, deliberately blurring—or exposing?—the line between the ivory tower and the real world as a trio of students is drawn into a vortex of imaginary hazards that seem real and real dangers that seem fabricated. All the while, the clock's ticking and the students' pursuit of the shadowy truth flashes into hyperdrive.

Mystery fans will be satisfied to hang on around the story's hairpin turns as the list of suspects swells and narrows with the unearthing of each clue, but Lavender, like Zimbardo and Milgram, is aiming at a broader target and posing deeper questions. Where do we set the boundaries between academic experimentation and real life? How will we react to authority figures' demands? And perhaps most tellingly, what are the consequences of being unable to separate truth from lies? In Obedience, as in Milgram's famed experiment, the answer comes in the form of a shock.

Thane Tierney is a former employee of the University of California, Irvine, whose faculty doesn't generally engage in these sorts of shenanigans.

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By Will Lavender
Shaye Areheart
ISBN 9780307396105

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