February 2008

Murder haunts a college town

By Susan Choi
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Shades of the Unabomber case and the Richard Jewell Olympic bombing debacle color A Person of Interest, Susan Choi's engrossing third novel. Half mystery, half character study, the book follows Professor Lee, an Asian-born immigrant in his 60s who teaches mathematics at a lower-tier Midwestern college.

The story opens with a bang, as Lee is stunned by the sound of an explosion in the office next to his. As it turns out, his colleague, the young, "hotshot" computer professor Rick Hendley, has opened a letter bomb. Hendley later dies at the hospital. And as the investigation commences, Lee's reputation is killed as well. Painted initially by the media as the almost-victim next door, Lee eventually becomes a "person of interest" in the case. And Choi does an admirable job of portraying the terror, helplessness and rage of someone being harshly persecuted in the court of public opinion. This is especially commendable because Choi deftly elicits sympathy from the reader for a character who is not really sympathetic at all. Lee does, in some ways, fit the profile of one who might be culpable of such a crime. An introvert who is often lacking in empathy himself, Lee is also a jealous man. His initial, callous inner response to the bombing ("oh, good," he thinks) reveals to the readers—and to himself—how resentful he was of Hendley's status at the college. And the portrait of Lee's past, weaved into the novel in flashback-fashion, is not one of a benevolent figure, either. While in graduate school, Lee befriended a fellow student, Lewis Gaither—and then stole his wife. It's a letter that may be from Gaither, all these years later and immediately following the bombing, which sparks the investigators' interest in Lee.

So why are we sympathetic to Lee's plight? Because although he is deeply flawed, that doesn't mean he's a killer. In Lee, the reader can see anyone who has been investigated and thought guilty—before they could even plead their case. A Person of Interest is a page-turning read that makes you think about the way you think.

Rebecca K. Stropoli writes from Brooklyn.

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