PhDeath by James Carse


9781623160661_1eb3ePhDeath is a fast-paced thriller set in a major university in a major city on a square. The faculty finds itself in deadly intellectual combat with the anonymous Puzzler. Along with teams of US Military Intelligence and the city’s top detective and aided by the Puzzle Master of The New York Times, their collective brains are no match for the Puzzler’s perverse talents. Carse, Emeritus Professor himself at a premier university in a major city on a square shows no mercy in his creation of the seemingly omniscient Puzzler, who through a sequence of atrocities beginning and ending with the academic year, turns up one hidden pocket of moral rot after another: flawed research, unabashed venality, ideological rigidity, pornographic obsessions, undue political and corporate influence, subtle schemes of blackmail, the penetration of national and foreign intelligence agencies, brazen violation of copyrights, even the production and sale of addictive drugs.


The jacket copy calls this a thriller but I’d say it’s a mystery.  There’s been a string of murders at an elite university and the police, Feds, and a committee of professors are on the case.  Each death is preceded by a ten part puzzle from the murderer, hinting at the next victim.

The good:

  • Several of the murders are creative and spectacular in a fun way.
  • Puzzles!  You’ll probably be able to figure out a couple parts as you go, and some are quite interestingly put together.
  • The Puzzle Master of the New York Times does indeed make an appearance, and it’s glorious.
  • The scene where the Puzzler is unmasked is amazing.  I was thrown for a loop – it’s a double reveal and I was blindsided on both counts.  I went “Wait… what?  HOW?” before flipping back to see how I possibly could have missed it.  Well done.
  • Whys and wherefores are fully explained in detail once the criminal is identified.  Only one detail I was curious about wasn’t expounded upon, which is pretty good.

The not-so-good:

  • The number ten is big in this book so each of the ten puzzles has ten parts.  All ten clues have a similar theme, so once you figure out the first few you can almost skip the rest, as the method has become clear.  However each part is painstakingly covered with answers and reasoning given, even for an arithmetic puzzle.  Judicious skimming helped me get through.
  • Looking for a breezy mystery?  This isn’t it.  If you like this sort of thing you’ll call it cerebral, but it veers towards “lecture about dead white guy philosopher” too much for me.  Here and there it’s interesting, but in other places it goes on too long.

Go in to PhDeath knowing it’s a philosophizing mystery.  Enjoy the crazy deaths, skim over clues that don’t interest  you, and watch out for that reveal – it’s a doozy.