Barthalmus’ science-filled murder mystery delivers the goods for readers and CALS scholarship students
Dr. George Barthalmus autographs copies of Revenge Trough Me at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ 2009 Tailgate event.
The cover of Revenge Through Me promises “Mystery and suspense with a touch of the supernatural” -- and the book delivers.
However, the mystery and suspense lie not so much in the “whodunit” of the murder at the center of this novel by Dr. George Barthalmus, professor emeritus of zoology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In fact, early on, the reader watches the murder as it is committed, with the “why” of the event, the motivation of the woman wielding the knife, seemingly clear. (Indeed, you practically cheer her on.)
No, the mystery and suspense – and ultimately the key supernatural phenomena -- actually arise from the science, the lab research in this mystery written by an academician who knows intimately the university research-and-teaching territory that serves as the setting.
The novel is definitely a page-turner, with mayhem aplenty, whether in scenes of serrated-edged knife attacks or assaults by neck-biting psychopaths. But one of the best zero-at-the-bone chills comes with the sudden specter of lab snakes in their tanks -- poised rigidly vertical, their mouths frozen agape, while their frog prey sit inches away calmly undaunted.
The science in the book is abundant. The novel’s central research evolves after the protagonist, Dr. Nick Hallas, takes over his murdered colleague’s university lab space. Nick finds that a chemical called morpholine will cause albinism in frogs -- and perhaps holds the promise of a treatment for melanoma. Further research leads Nick to connect the cellular-level dots of a common ground among melanin, adrenalin and the possible bases of schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. In parallel, Nick finds links between his project, his predecessor’s activities and the murder itself.
Woven throughout all this is a supernatural force, something Nick’s upbringing has prepared him to recognize, if not totally accept. He was schooled from a young age by his Greek grandmother about the “Evil Eye” and spiritual forces at work to both help him and harm him, but the scientist Nick had placed those superstition-based teachings on a mental back burner. Now, as events transpire in his life that cannot be explained empirically, he finds himself trying to reconcile the two perspectives—with the help of Andy Culpa, his student research assistant, and Teresa Howard, a Florida retiree who happens to be a medium.
The quest takes Nick from academe to the swamps of Florida to a state psychiatric facility to a spiritualists’ community straight out of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Within his plot, Barthalmus has sprinkled comic moments, sage (and acerbic) insights, nicely drawn characters, fascinating science lessons and a few romantic encounters to provide an entertaining mystery that seems to keep reinventing itself.
And, to boot, he’s donating the proceeds from the sale of the book to support the George T. and Marina T. Barthalmus Life Sciences Scholarship Endowment in the College’s N.C. Agricultural Foundation Inc.
How the book came about is a story in itself. Barthalmus started writing not long after his June 2001 retirement from CALS as associate dean and director of Academic Programs. “I thought that it might be fun to take some of the odd research happenings in my lab and converting them into a snappy piece of imagination gone wild,” he says. “By mixing some family stories with ongoing research, I surprised myself and the family. My mother, Mary, really got excited, and before I knew it, she became an inside editor with some good stories.”
The initial writing ended with a book half the current size in 2002, he says, when the NCSU vice provost asked him to serve as interim director of the University Honors Program. “One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was building a new NCSU Office of Undergraduate Research and even spending one year as the half-time interim head of Zoology.”
The book was deemed by his wife’s book club as ending too sadly in that earlier, shorter version, says Barthalmus. “They wanted more, so the book became twice as large and, I think, much better. I finished the book in November 2008 with a copyright in the same year.
“Getting to finish the book before I died was nice,” he says. “I had ideas that only took me to the completion of the first half of the book; I thought the book was finished, but my wife’s book club hit me over the head and told me to keep on writing. So the real fun came with no outline and the words and ideas just popping out of my head. That is when I realized that I could possibly be a writer.”
Revenge Through Me is his first work of fiction, but not his last. He has recently completed the sequel called The Quack. “It’s a page turner, and my mother loves it,” he says.
“The sequel will be exciting and involves some really good twists and turns. Those who read Revenge Through Me will absolutely love this one.”
The main thing that surprised him in writing Revenge Through Me, he says, “was the ease I found in taking real experiences and contriving nasty, nice and funny stories out of them. I believe that all authors of fiction have lots of real elements of themselves and life embellished in their work. That is what makes the writing of fiction so easy. You don’t have to be an expert on much of anything. Today, for the closing of my next book, I had to do a bit of research on the effects of digitalis from the foxglove plant. But I don’t have to be a cardiologist in order to take that information and cause some trouble to a character in the book. Writers of fiction are fibbers of the nth degree.”
And yes, he says, “the Nick in the book really is me, and some of the spooky stories and funny ones are true. There is a real ‘Andy,’ but I changed him far more than I changed myself. The undergraduate mentoring is a piece of me that I really enjoyed as a faculty member in Zoology. Those wonderful students all turned out so well; I love them dearly. Again, I used the names of friends and students in the book, and they’ve gotten a kick out of it.”
However, he emphatically adds, the book is “fiction…that’s called ‘imagination gone wild.’”
Among his own reading preferences, he says, “I like real science-based fiction, and some supernatural stuff tossed in is good too. Although I didn’t like Congo, I did like the kind of thing the author was up to. Jurassic Park and even The DaVinci Code have elements that I like. Spooks are good, but they can’t be monsters. I want evil real people to bring the terror because that is more believable.”
His affinity for the scary stuff comes naturally, he says. “I was born at the end of October. Does that say anything about the birthday parties my folks had for me?”
One nice thing that has happened recently, he says, “is that an old friend read the book out in California, and she’s a screenplay writer. She indicated that she saw two-to-three TV episodes in the first book. I don’t have the money to pay for a writer to take it to TV Land so it will just have to sit until I learn how to write a screenplay.”
For now, he’s pleased that this labor of love will support scholarships for CALS students like Joshua Davis, who received the first scholarship money from the endowment.
When he’s not writing, he’s busy in his post-retirement role as director of the NCSU Office of Undergraduate Research. “I work with top faculty mentors and the great students they rear so that those students are nicely positioned for admission to graduate and professional schools, for excellent jobs, and for national fellowships. Lots going on right now,” he says.
That includes a speech he was to deliver at a November luncheon for retired university faculty. “I’m going to encourage them to do what I’ve done,” he says. “To take their research, build a story around it, fib a bit, self-publish the work and donate the proceeds to a scholarship for a student in their home department.”—Terri Leith