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Obedience    by Will Lavender order for
by Will Lavender
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Shaye Areheart, 2008 (2008)
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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Will Lavender's Obedience is a psychological novel centered on a cold case mystery. It focuses on a small group of students - including some who seem particularly isolated and vulnerable - taking Professor Williams' Logic and Reasoning 204 class at Winchester University.

The first day of class is bizarre. William assigns his fifteen students to find a missing girl named Polly, warning them that if they do not succeed in tracking her down by the end of the term, Polly will be murdered. Of course the students react in the expected ways - with disbelief, anger, and resentment before settling into compliance - but when some of them ask their prof's teaching assistant about the situation, they learn that Williams has been teaching his class in this strange fashion for many years now. He answers some questions in class, and mails clues about the Polly mystery to students between classes.

Three students become obsessed with the exercise in ways that seem more and more unhealthy as the six weeks (the time they have to save Polly) pass. English major Mary Butler, who used to trust easily and has been badly hurt, is attracted to Williams who looks 'so not like a professor.' Brian House has been grieving for ten months over his older brother's suicide, and his return to university has become 'pitifully insignificant to him', but the notion of saving Polly catches his imagination 'as a sort of strange redemption.' Frat boy Dennis Flaherty, who has charm in spades and exploits it, used to date Mary, but broke up with her. Soon he begins what seems a rather dangerous liaison with the dean's wife, Elizabeth Orman.

As they follow clues - at first separately, and ultimately together - they uncover all kinds of links to the unsolved case of a real missing girl (Deanna Ward, who disappeared in 1986), as well as connections to people close to them. They also discover disturbing facts about Williams, from an accusation of plagiarism to rumors that he's crazy, not to mention the fact that he wrote a true crime book about Deanna Ward. They become paranoid and neglect other class work, doing whatever it takes to find Polly. As time runs out, things get even stranger - Williams disappears and Mary concludes that 'he had become a player in his own game.' There is violence and the students feel danger closing in on them.

As suspense builds, and the sinister challenge that Williams set for his students grows ever more intricate, readers wonder how this can all end - and the conclusion is a disturbing, susprising one, that makes clear the risks taken - and the unexpected consequences - in trying to influence behavior. Obedience is a unique, elegant, cleverly constructed and baffling puzzler, that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page.

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