'...Kakistocracies seem to be taking over everywhere.' ...
'They’ve turned schools into factories. Fill out the form, mark the dot, memorize the same things. At the rate real learning is being undercut, soon we’ll be an idiocracy.’
‘Can we blame the internet?’
This was a very clever book. The more I think about it, the quicker I come back to that point. There's a lot more to think about and write about when it comes to Hire Idiots, but the core of it all has to be the cleverness of it.
The novel begins with the murder of an aged college professor—there are not exactly a lot of suspects. He's largely estranged from his family; not particularly liked by his colleagues (but no one really rises to active dislike or enmity); he holds an endowed chair—in English—at a small, obscure Liberal Arts college, so it's not as if his death is going to benefit anyone, or be noticed by anyone outside his department, really.
Before the police can really get the investigation underway, the entire college (including those who did notice his death) are distracted by a shakeup at the top of the administration. The president is removed following a financial scandal. The Board doesn't name an interim and begin a search for a new successor, rather they appoint a figure-head chancellor and a Chief Operations Officer. The COO brings in a Chief Academic Officer, a host of Vice Presidents, and a consulting group to help them (assuming the latter can ever figure out the name of the college). These people couch their ideas in a lot of positive spin and corporate-speak, but what it all boils down to is that programs, departments, and staff are going to be cut—except, of course, in the Business and Criminal Justice areas.
Then an active shooter arrives on campus and ends up taking over an entire building. Instead of letting the police apprehend him, the new corporate leadership removes them from campus and lets their security team deal with the situation, resulting in (for starters) a media blackout. Can't have current and prospective students thinking this is an unsafe place to study and/or spend tuition/fees/etc. money anywhere else.
Where most mystery novels—no matter how cozy they are—would focus on the murder and/or the takeover of the building, Hire Idiots focuses on the responses from the faculty to the new administration and the impending cuts, with a focus on one of the murdered professor's closest acquaintances and his response to the administration, his observations of the rest, and his crush on the detective heading up the murder investigation. I'd estimate 85% of the novel is about the shakeup, 6% about the professor's personal life/response to everything; 5% on the shakeup story and 4% on the takeover.
That's not a criticism, that's a description—primarily so you don't spend a lot of time, like me, wondering "is this actually a Crime Novel or did I mis-remember something?" Yes, it is, but it's not going about anything the way you'd expect.
The bulk of the novel is a satirical/prophetic look at the state of the American higher education (noting repeatedly that British education is further down this path), taking inspiration from the line from William Blake (the focus of the scholarship of our primary character):
Degrade first the arts, if you'd mankind degrade;
Hire idiots to paint with cold light and hot shade.
As such, it is pretty devastating and too close to the truth for comfort.
Like any good satire, there are a couple of scenes that are delightfully and bizarrely absurd. When the Theater Department joined in the Faculty protest and their contribution went awry, I laughed loud enough to draw stares from my family. I won't spoil it, but when you read that bit, you can just imagine me cracking up.
Some of the characters are better-drawn than you frequently see in satire, which is wonderful. I really grew to like a few of them, and appreciated what Nemo was able to with them (although character and character development really didn't seem as important to the novel as did everything else).
On top of that—or on the side, anyway—you've got a nice little puzzle of a murder that at once is clever, and not meaty enough to sustain an entire novel (hence, the rest) and the strange little business about the building takeover. I'm still not sure really get what Nemo was going for there (although, I'm convinced that it should be obvious to me, and I'll feel sheepish when it finally occurs to me), but I enjoyed it.
My one complaint is the length—I think we needed a little more of everything. It all felt just a little under-developed. Not enough to make me dislike the book, just enough to keep me from being fully satisfied.
A clever, clever read that will entertain as it makes you worry about the future of formal education. On the surface, Hire Idiots is a fun read, with some very sharp-witted lines. As a bonus, it'll get you to use "Kakistocracy", which is just a fun word.