Utterly Heartless by Jan Underwood

heartless

Disclaimer: a friend of mine’s wife wrote this. But I promise you that even though I know her I wouldn’t tell you to read her book if it wasn’t worth it. Well, maybe if she was sharing the royalties, but she isn’t. So there’s nothing in it for me.

Utterly Heartless is about a college Latin professor named Linnea who is – well, heartless. She finds herself on a bus, but doesn’t remember leaving work or boarding the bus, and there is a large empty hole in her chest. Because she has no religious affiliation, but once published some essays about Ancient Rome, she finds that the Underworld Powers That Be have assigned her to Hades. She learns from her new dead friend, Vergil (yes, he turns out to be that Vergil) that she can apply for a transfer to some other afterlife, or if someone who loves her does some great deed for her within two weeks, she might be redeemed. She can’t even begin to decide what afterlife she should pick, so Linnea appears to her friend and office-mate Dori, and asks her to reunite her with her heart. This, she hopes, will be a great enough deed to redeem her.

Dori is overwhelmed. Her best friend has died, the college is trying to eliminate all of their jobs, and she’s expected to take on all of Linnea’s paperwork. Linnea’s temporary replacement is incompetent, and as a result his students come to Dori for advice and comfort. Plus she’s finally just met a guy. She wants to find the heart, but she also wants to find out who killed Linnea in the first place and not get killed herself. Was it the flunking student? The colleague who wanted her job? A higher-up who knew she was trying to work with a union?

Meanwhile, we also meet Alice, Linnea’s student, who lives with an assortment of housemates who all do ridiculous things for tuition money (Alice strips, Jillian is a surrogate mother, and Guppy takes drugs for medical trials, for example). Alice is hurt both personally and academically by Linnea’s death – not only was she her favorite professor, but Alice desperately needs the Latin credits. We follow Alice as she negotiates her personal financial, romantic, and work disasters – all while trying to figure out how she can help find the killer.

Don’t read this book for the plot – there isn’t a lot of whodunit to it, and while I fingered an accomplice the first time s/he (not giving away any spoilers here!) appeared, I never did figure out who actually did it or why until s/he was revealed. The suspense level isn’t terrible – it’s not the kind of book that leaves you in terror of the character’s safety so the anxiety keeps you awake and reading – it’s the LAUGHS that keep you awake and reading. The murder is sort of beside the point – the reason to read this book is to have a good giggle at the follies of academia (if you have ever been a student desperate for money, a professor desperate for respect or tenure, or a cog in any huge machine, you will say “amen” more than once) and of Portland, Oregon (the city in the book is called “Bridges”, but if you live in Portland, you will realize in the first chapter as Alice goes to her job at the strip club that it couldn’t possibly be anywhere else). There are also literary references aplenty for the book geek in all of us (Linnea’s various trips to the underworld are rife with mythological and historical characters), and enough pithy Latin and French quotes to make you sound smart at your next dinner party if you can only remember them. Oh, and the mental picture of Vergil squatting in a Portland (ahem, “Bridges”) apartment, collecting women’s shoes and struggling to finally finish the Aenid after all these years is well worth the cover price.

Read alikes – hmm, I don’t read a lot of mysteries because I frighten easily, but this sort of reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s books – fun and entertaining, but not too scary. Humor-wise, if you liked the TV series Dead Like Me, or have ever lived in the rainy Pacific Northwest, or have ever made great sacrifices for an education you’ll probably never use, you’ll identify with this. I read another review that said it was like Dead Like Me set in Portlandia, and that sounds about right to me.

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