A Review of "Double Negative" by David Carkeet

Oct 5, 2008

Murray, KY – I don't usually read academic mysteries; my actual experience as a college teacher provided me with more laughs and puzzles than the books could. But David Carkeet's Double Negative, about a bunch of linguists studying the development of language in small children, is different. For one thing, these people are not in a college setting; they work in a day-care center that is also an observing laboratory called the Wabash Institute.

The main character here, Jeremy Cook, reminds me of Kingsley Amis's comic hero in Lucky Jim. That book isn't a mystery, but the title character is an academic type whose comic bumbling includes a disastrous speech before a group he despises. There's a similar scene in this book.

Although they aren't at a college, there's still plenty of academic infighting among the linguists at the Wabash Institute, and at one point they all contemplate with horror the possibility that, if their funding dries up, they might have to teach. The local police lieutenant who comes to investigate the murders at Wabash regards with contempt the linguists' jealousies and what he sees as their cowardly fear of judgment. Lieutenant Leaf is one of Carkeet's more interesting characters funny, shrewd, and full of odd expressions that continually surprise Jeremy Cook: the whole boiling is Leaf's phrase for the whole thing, and at one point he says the law can't let everyone run around rantum-scantum, meaning presumably harum-scarum, except that rantum-scantum is really an archaic expression for sexual intercourse, and I assume a little joke of the linguist author.

Some of the characters have names indicating their dispositions or habits: Jeremy's friend, who is accident-prone, is named Ed Woeps; and the gossip-monger of the group, always asking you questions so that he has something to pass on to the next person, is named Aaskhugh.

The fear of judgment that Lieutenant Leaf despises in these academics is really a theme of the book. Carkeet explores personal likes and dislikes, the wish to be liked, and the flimsy, sometimes misguided reasons on which affections or aversions get formed. The mystery is finally solved when Jeremy figures out the private linguistic forms by which one toddler indicates the people he likes or dislikes. And the crimes begin when an accident turns into a hit-and-run because the driver is afraid of the public exposure his recklessness will bring. The book ends with the little group of linguists, their number reduced by one who was murdered and one who has been jailed for it, reexamining and trying to modify their judgments of each other. I liked it; perhaps you will as well.