“The Professor is a thoroughly gripping mystery about power, ambition, and the lengths we will go to in order to succeed. Pacey and full of tension, this one will stick with you long after THE END.” –New York Times and #1 International Bestselling author, Karin Slaughter
For fans of Tana French, The Professor investigates the darkest corners of academic life: ambition, lies, and obsession.
On a spring afternoon in Athens, Georgia, Ethan Haddock is discovered in his apartment, dead, apparently by his own hand. His fatality immediately garners media attention: not because his death reflects the troubling increase of depression and mental health issues among college students, but because the media has caught the whiff of a scandal. His professor, Dr. Verena Sobek, has been taken in for questioning, and there are rumors his death is the result of a bad romance. A Title IX investigation is opened, the professor is suspended, and social media crusaders and trolls alike are out for blood.
Marlitt Kaplan never investigated love affairs. A former detective turned research assistant, she misses the excitement of her old job, but most of all the friendship of her partner, Teddy. When her mother, a professor at the university and colleague of the accused professor, asks for her help, she finds herself in the impossible position of proving something didn't happen. Without the credentials to interview suspects or access phone records, she will have to get closer to a victim's life than ever before. And she quickly finds herself in his apartment, having dinner with his roommates, even sleeping in his bed. But is she too close to see the truth?
In her relentless pursuit to uncover the mystery behind Ethan’s death, Marlitt will be forced to confront the power structures ingrained in the classroom against the backdrop of a historic campus and an institution that sometimes fails its most vulnerable members.
A Macmillan Audio production from Flatiron Books.
Release date: November 14, 2023
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Print pages: 368
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The Professor: A Novel
Monday, March 2, 10:00 A.M.
The steering wheel’s cold under my fingertips, but my palms are sweating.
I can do this, I think as I slow to a stop in front of the crosswalk.
“I just need to explain what happened,” I say to the windshield. “That I overreacted.”
My eyes flicker to the rearview mirror. They jump back to the road but not before my mind registers the red-raw skin and stubbly patches of newly grown hair, as soft and fine as an infant’s. I’ve never considered myself a vain person, and yet I continue to gaze at my reflection as if one day I might find something different.
I draw my attention instead to the university arches, watch the students with their flushed faces and pale flesh shooting out of freshly ripped jeans. Like featherless baby birds, they perch precariously on brick ledges and yell to one another across the soft grass. A year ago, I believed their youth made them carefree and weightless, no more tethered to the earth than falling leaves. Now I know this lightness can make them cruel, frightening in their inability to understand the consequences of their actions. I wear the proof of this on my skin.
The light changes from red to green, and I blow out a breath, accelerating again.
The station’s only five minutes from the students and shops of downtown Athens but might as well be a world away. I could drive here with my eyes closed, and yet, for the past few months, I’ve been tracing large circles around it, taking back roads, and looking straight ahead when I can’t avoid passing. It’s embarrassing, actually—the ways I’ve allowed its central location to dictate my days.
But now I’m here, turning into the parking lot, drawn like a magnet, succumbing to the inevitable pull of my shame. I swallow, but no alarms sound and no one rushes out to chase me away. The building’s as nondescript and unimposing as it was the day I walked in as a newly minted detective, and as squat and gray as the morning I walked out in disgrace.
Out of habit, I drive toward the back. A deep flush rises up my chest when I see a familiar bike locked to the steps. The lieutenant’s silver Charger is parked aggressively across a white line. And even Oliver’s VW Golf is in its usual space, as straight and rule-abiding as the owner himself pretends to be.
Nothing’s changed, I think.
But then, for me, it has. Because instead of parking dangerously close to the lieutenant’s beloved vehicle, I circle around the lot and pull in the front. Today I won’t be entering through the key card rear entrance. Instead, I’ll go through the lobby and check in at the reception desk, where I’ll sit on the hard wooden benches and twiddle my thumbs like an idiot waiting for someone to escort me to the bullpen.
If they let me that far, I think as I turn off the engine.
The silenced scream of a siren echoes as I open my door. A white sedan with a blue racer stripe takes the corner too fast. They must be new—no one leaves their siren on that long unless they want an ironic round of applause at their entrance. I crane my neck but don’t recognize the driver or the woman in the back—she’s merely a flash of dark hair whirring past, the edge of a gray shoulder, her face turned inward and blurred by the smudged handprint on the glass. The blue lights disappear in a swirl of sunshine; and then she’s gone, and I’m walking through the front doors of the station, bludgeoned by the familiar scent of damp ceiling tiles, astringent cleaner, and heavy memories of the life I left.
A predictable crowd gathers in the lobby—it’s a mixture of hungover students, recent retirees, and strung-out junkies. And as I move toward the front desk, I avoid the glances that flick to my skin. Focus instead on the laminate tiles, the light flitting across the scuffed walls and layers of faded paint. It’s been four months since a misguided young man slipped into my house and set my bedroom on fire, and I’ve hardened myself to the curiosity and looks of disgust, but I still can’t stand their pity.
I didn’t use to be this way. When I was on the force, I strolled across town, eyes on everyone, looking for suspicious activity—telltale signs of a disturbance, teenagers disappearing into dark alleys, the convertible weaving across the lane, the bloodshot eyes and the slurred speech. Now I keep my eyes down and try not to notice the plastic bags slipping between the fingers of junkies, the thumbprint bruises on the woman’s neck, scrape marks on the entrance door, and signs the lock has been tampered with, because I no longer have the power to stop a person or to investigate, and the last thing anyone at Athens PD wants is a disgraced former detective showing up every time she thinks she sees something.
I mutter as I sign my name on the visitors’ sheet and grudgingly check my watch to add the hour. I’ve never been good at waiting. But now I have time. Time that gnashes its teeth like a leviathan, a never-ending battle to keep myself busy, to avoid thinking about how badly I screwed up my job, my life, and any chance of friendship with my old partner, Teddy.
I choose a chair near the window and a good distance from the others. A woman blinks at my face and then away before sneaking another glance. There’s a prickly sensation of eyes on the side of my neck, and I scan the room for the glint of a knife, the flick of a match. But all I find is the woman, her mouth now hidden by a magazine, a steel-blue gaze watching me.
My mobile rings, and the woman clears her throat, a quick gesture of her hand to the paper sign taped to the desk—a boxy phone with a giant X drawn across it. Her eyes dart between me and the sign in noiseless reprimand.
I silence the call without apologizing. It’s my mother. Unusual. She teaches in the morning and dislikes talking on the phone almost as much as answering student emails, unnecessary modifiers, and department meetings.
It’s nothing, I tell myself as I slip the phone back in my bag. But before I can resume my practiced disinterest, it rings again.
I hear a clucking from the front of the room and look up to find Amy, the station’s long-suffering admin, smirking crookedly at me.
I decline the call a second time and stand.
“The prodigal child returns.” Amy’s laughter turns into a wheeze. She picks up the lobby phone. “Lieutenant Truman,” she says.
“Not Truman,” I tell her. “Teddy.”
She wags a bony finger at me. “Yes, sir,” she says with barely disguised glee. “There’s someone here to see you.”
“I don’t want Truman,” I grumble, but Amy’s already returning the phone to its handset.
“Have a seat,” she tells me brusquely. “Someone’ll bring you back.”
I swallow the bile in my throat. I don’t like taking orders from Amy, and Truman is the last person I want to see. But maybe this is better. Teddy might have refused to meet me.
The guy they send as my escort is tall and gangly, and the pants of his uniform twitch above his ankles as he hurries to my seat. I don’t recognize him, and no one must have warned him about my burns because he does a predictable double take at my face.
“Follow me,” he says, gaze shifting to the floor.
When we round the corner, my eyes go straight for Teddy’s desk. My stomach clenches. His profile is toward me: the same dark, warm skin, strong jaw, and high cheekbones. There’s a sharpened pencil tucked behind his ear as he stares at his computer screen. And I know he’s registered my presence by the way his shoulders go rigid.
I open my mouth, but the gangly new hire steers me toward the back.
“Kaplan.” Truman’s voice booms from the dark hole that is his personal office. “Well, isn’t this a surprise.”
And there he is: my old lieutenant standing behind his mahogany desk, the light from the outer room illuminating his bald head. He rocks back on his toes to study me.
I clench my jaw as his eyes rove over my face, my T-shirt, and my ripped jeans.
I don’t have to impress you, I want to say, which is ridiculous, because of course I don’t, but a part of me wants to all the same.
He looks pleased to see me, and suddenly I realize that he’s been waiting for this moment, perhaps since the day I left. He thinks I’m here to grovel, to beg for my job back.
“To what do we owe the pleasure?” He beams.
“I’m here to see Teddy.”
“Even Teddy can’t help you with this,” Truman says, still smiling. “But let’s hear it.”
“I want to hear how you’ve rationalized your actions and now have the audacity to ask to be reinstated.”
“Because from where I stand, you put both your job and your partner’s at risk, you jeopardized an investigation by breaking and entering into a fraternity house, and then continued to harass its members while given strict instructions to stay away from the case. Am I missing anything?”
I breathe through my nose. Breaking and entering is a bit of an exaggeration. Last November, I investigated a hit-and-run fatality of a fraternity brother and crashed one of their parties. The doors were open, and I was more or less invited in. But three days later, I resigned instead of risking termination. I made mistakes Truman never discovered and I have no plans of illuminating him now. But I also know that I was right. About the fraternity, the lack of justice, and that this department was too busy kissing the university president’s ass to do anything about it.
When I remain silent, Truman rubs his finger along a framed photograph on his desk.
“You know, if it weren’t for me, you never would have made detective. The first woman in the homicide unit. Everyone thought you’d lose your nerve and throw your gun at a suspect, but I gave you a chance—”
“I had top marks in my class—”
“I advocated for you.” His voice lifts to drown mine out. “And you made a fool of me.” He hammers a thick forefinger on his desk. “Or did you think enough time had passed that I forgot you arrested a suspect while suspended?”
Fury ripples over my skin. If I hadn’t followed leads while suspended, the perpetrator would still be walking free. But what’s worse is that those who enabled the crime will never be punished. And Truman knows this.
“I’m not here to get my old job back,” I say through clenched teeth.
“You’re not?” His lips flatten, and he frowns, too startled to mask his surprise.
“No.” I fold my arms across my chest. “I’m here to see Teddy.”
Teddy, who hasn’t answered my calls. Teddy, my partner for three years, whom I haven’t seen in months.
Truman stares at me. Then he collapses in his chair as if exhausted by our conversation. “You can fraternize later,” he says gruffly, and begins thumbing through the papers on his desk.
“He won’t talk to me.” It costs something to tell Truman this, but he’s no longer listening.
His phone rings. His palm hovers over it.
“Figure out your relationship drama on your own time,” he says, and reaches for the handset.
Dismissed, I turn on my feet. An officer I don’t recognize glances in my direction and then away again. He’s striding toward the interview room with a pinched look around his mouth. And I think of the woman in the back of the cop car when I arrived. On another day, in another life, I might wonder about her, what she did, what evidence I could gather to put her away. But today, my eyes scan the bullpen only to find Teddy’s chair now empty. In the corner, the new guy wavers, loath to escort me out.
Every workplace has its pariahs—the people whose presence sends those at watercoolers scattering, whose name is toxic by association. I never minded being an outsider. In an over-politicized system lacking accountability, I believed more got done on the margins—not so much coloring outside the lines but on top of them, over them, so the border moved a little every time. What’s unfair is that the sole person who understands the egregiousness of my error is Teddy. The rest don’t know what happened—not really—but the station gossips like teenagers at a slumber party, and by now, rumors about my resignation will have spread like a bad game of telephone, spanning everything from assaulting a fraternity member to a gender-coded psychotic break.
I hear the back door slam and move toward it. See the edge of Teddy’s shoulder as he jogs down the steps to his bike.
“Wait.” My voice is muffled, not as strong or as sure as I want it to be, but it rings between us.
I move around the metal handrail to face him.
His expression is heavy and shuttered. And something in my stomach tightens when he turns to me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “The fire…,” I begin, trying to remember the words I practiced. “I overreacted. I know that. I shouldn’t have forced you to take me to that cabin. I put your job at risk, messed up the investigation—”
Teddy shakes his head, and I quit speaking.
Our eyes meet and I have a flash of driving around Athens, him laughing at something I said, breaking a granola bar and passing him the other half, sharing a cup of coffee, fingers touching as we shiver in the cold. I see him at my hospital bedside, his head in his palms. Him teasing me about being a secret agent. There was something there, something real and pure and so tangible I could have held it in my hands. But I took our friendship for granted, and now I’m searching his closed face for it, refusing to believe that it’s gone.
“Is this about Cindy?”
I had brought his girlfriend with me to the fraternity party Truman accused me of breaking and entering. I wasn’t totally up-front about my motives and left her to follow the organization’s treasurer. I found out later that one of the brothers was responsible for the fire in my bedroom, but I already knew they were dangerous. And as I blink at Teddy, I realize that not only does he think I’m a bad partner, he also must think I’m a bad person.
“I know it was wrong—selfish,” I say, repeating the word Teddy used to describe my behavior last year.
Teddy’s jaw clenches. “And yet here you are.” He gestures between our chests. “You can’t keep apologizing and expect everything to be better. I made it clear I needed space to think.” He looks past me to the traffic on Broad Street. “But you want everything on your timeline, at your initiative, and”—he lifts his voice when I start to interrupt—“you don’t respect boundaries.”
“Boundaries?” I open my mouth and close it again, caught off guard by the therapy speak.
He scans my face as if looking for something redeemable in me. For the partner he knew, the friend he trusted. But then he’s pedaling away, and there’s nothing I can say to stop him, because he’s right. I had my own agenda in solving last year’s case and people got hurt in the process. I thought if I could just get out the most perfectly worded apology, everything would be okay. But maybe my error was too egregious, maybe I don’t deserve his friendship or his forgiveness.
I watch his edges fade into the sunlight.
My phone vibrates again, the third time in the last fifteen minutes.
“What?” I say, a bit harsher than I intended.
“Marlitt? Gott sei dank.” My mother’s breathless, thanking god, and so out of character that my heart starts to hammer.
“I’ve been trying to reach you all morning.” Her voice is tight and accusing, a slash of her German accent coming through.
Copyright © 2023 by Lauren Nossett
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