The new creative writing teacher in Mason, Missouri, is a soft-spoken, gentle man with an unfortunate habit: he is a serial killer. Scrupulously circumspect about his occasional aberrations, Arthur Blume doesnít hesitate to admit his faults.
In fact, Arthur goes to great lengths to help the reader understand the problems of a serial killer and would-be-successful author who hasnít published anything significant since his early twenties. Now in his fifties, it is critical that Arthur come up with a new novel, especially if he is to obtain tenure in his new position.
In chapters that alternate between his harrowing childhood, raised by a mentally unstable mother, and his adaptation to the demands of the academic community, Blume makes his case, describing a carefully orchestrated lifestyle and efforts to establish camaraderie with co-workers.
Taking up the cause of an elderly student-cum-employee of the department, Arthur takes umbrage at the shabby way his associates treat Nada Petrovich, the meddling, overweight woman who hovers over everyone in the department, rearranging, decorating, running errands. Blume feels Nada should be treated with more respect, but his opinion falls on deaf ears.
Beginning an affair with another instructor, Grace Burch, Arthur flirts with a relationship, but Grace grows increasingly impatient with his vague answers and allergy to commitment. But then, she remains ignorant of his violent actions. For his part, Arthur tires of Grace, cruelly dissecting her flaws, belittling her value.
But this is essentially Arthurís story in his own words, all the more disturbing for the calm logic he presents, whether describing Graceís shortcomings or considering his next victim. In his strange, disconnected way, Blume is almost likeable, albeit barely. When he finally makes his move, there are no regrets, only rationalization and clear-minded planning.
As the specter of his motherís insanity forms the warped personality of a sociopath, Arthurís facility in presenting a normal faÁade to the world allows him safe passage through academic society: an unimposing, genial man who never attracts attention or gives away the cold-blooded plans he formulates for unsuspecting victims.
Even more fascinating - and perhaps the reason this book is so insightful - is the authorís relationship with a real-life serial killer that inspired her haunting novel. Seduced by the pleasant demeanor of such a creature, Kinder struggles with how to tell her story, choosing finally a fiction that allows a fuller appreciation of the contradictory behavior of a monstrous, but absolute, gentleman.
More than once, the reader must pause to consider the randomness of circumstance, the strangers we fail to notice and the existence of evil that dwells so comfortably among us.