Jake Fuchs has recently published his second mystery novel in the Nursery School Murders series: “The Death of a Prof.”
Set in Berkeley, it features a nursery school teacher who is thrust into the roles of both sleuth and conscience for a gaggle of dangerous, self-involved characters.
Coincidentally, Fuchs’ wife is a nursery school teacher, and Fuchs himself has the brashness and bushy eyebrows of Maren’s fictional husband, Aaron. But this is an invented story and Fuchs, a retired English Professor from California State University at Hayward, who wrote literary criticism throughout his career, is delighted “to be old enough to do what (he) wants” and finally focus on fiction.
Fuchs grew up in Los Angeles, son of Hollywood screenplay writer, Daniel Fuchs. His mother collaborated closely with his father; Fuchs remembers he and his brother having to remain silent while their parents sequestered themselves in their home, deeply engaged in writing.
A movie poster on Fuchs’ living room wall advertises one of Daniel Fuchs’ films, “Criss Cross”, a film noir that starred Burt Lancaster.
Jake Fuchs came to Berkeley for college in 1957 and met his wife Freya at UC Berkeley right after he’d had a bout of pneumonia. Caught in the rain without an umbrella, he asked an attractive coed to let him into her apartment since he’d just been sick. She brought him in and there was her roommate Freya. They’ve been married for 39 years, have three adult children and live in North Berkeley.
“Death of a Prof” is not of the “cozy” mystery genre, the type with innocuous crimes and quiet librarian sleuths. It is too peculiar for that. This book has horrific aspects, a shocking murder and an even grizzlier, albeit surreal, ending.
But the main characters have depth and are handled with great consideration.
Reading Fuchs’ book is not a skip-skip-skip across the surface from plot event to plot event to plot event. It is more often like reading a long short story with oddball twists.
Death of a Prof spoofs Berkeley: “The common denominator for the whole town was a deeply serious, soul-involving desire for the best cooking to be had. And damn the expense.”
Nonetheless, profound statements are made about teaching and children. Adult problems are constantly swirling around the children, jealousies, tempers and egos, and the nursery school teachers make astute observations regarding the effects of parents’ problems on their children.
“People told (teachers)... not to worry about this child because children are resilient. But they’re not. Teachers know. Children are good at surviving, yes, but they don’t just snap back into shape,” he said.
Fuchs feels that teachers in general, and nursery school teachers in particular, are rarely respected for the incredibly important work they do; instead they are “treated like menials.”
Fuchs created Maren as an homage, in part, to teachers.
Maren is a woman who prefers the company of children to adults. She is a teacher “capable of very decisive action to keep the world safe and stable for the children she teaches.”
The book’s observations about teaching are particularly wonderful to read. Fuchs has captured intimate details of daily teaching life that few outside the profession would ever know.
This reader especially loved the description of the school’s neighbor The playfulness Fuchs uses in describing one boy named Moby who would one day discover he’d been named for a whale is charming. Maren’s teacher voice observing that, after a child fell and started crying lustily it was safe to say the child was all right, the crying proved, it is the ultimate teacher truth.
The marriage in the mystery between Maren and Aaron, Fuchs says, is one of people “who love each other very much but don’t seem to understand what the other wants. They keep blundering into each other’s blind spots. He pops off and is resentful and she is a little bit angry herself.” Fuchs feels that women have a tendency to think that men are less aware than they are of what is happening around them, but asserts that even his thickest character, Aaron, is more aware than his wife understands. He says one cannot draw a direct correlation to his own life from this fictional character he’s created, but one certainly wants to tease out the real-life folks from the characters. In Aaron he has portrayed a man who would never let down someone who is counting on him, especially not his wife, Fuchs says and clearly Fuchs identifies with that quality in Aaron.
There will be other Nursery School Murders, but right now Fuchs is working on a piece about a relationship of distance between father and son.
Fuchs can often be seen out jogging, and talking aloud to himself, an Aaron trait, that probably is just the author giving himself critical feedback.
“Death of a Prof” is available in Bay Area book stores or through the publisher Creative Arts Book company, Berkeley (800-848-7789).