A Person of Interest

Lee, whose first name is never given, was born in an unspecified Asian country but has been in the United States most of his life. He is in his late sixties, nearing the end of a rather mundane career in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at an undistinguished university in a small town in the Midwest. He lives alone, and he is in general distanced from the community and the college. Not ready to retire from teaching because he has nothing else to do, he foresees none of the upheavals that will change his set routines and force him to reevaluate his entire life history.

As Susan Choi’s novel A Person of Interest opens, Lee is realizing that he had never liked the bomb victim, his colleague Professor Hendley, and that much of that dislike was because, unlike himself, Hendley was young and popular with students. Their offices were next to each other, and Lee jealously noticed that students seldom came to see him, but there were often lines of students eager to talk with Hendley. Both professors, however, are alone in their offices when Hendley opens a small packet he has received through campus mail and it explodes in his face. Lee is knocked over by the blast, and it is a student who first sees Hendley and calls for help. Hendley is taken to intensive care at the local hospital, where he dies a few days later.

No culprit is immediately identified, and rumors abound. Lee is startled when it begins to appear that he is being singled out for more than routine questioning by the FBI agents who are pursuing the case. Lee does not attend the campuswide memorial ceremony for Hendley, and his absence is noticed. Soon, all the office staff, so important in every department, are avoiding him, and faculty and students in groups suddenly stop talking when he appears. Attendance in his classes dwindles. Although Lee has had tenure for more than twenty years, the chair of the department informs him that another faculty member will take over his classes for the remainder of the spring semester and will teach his summer class. Things become even worse when the FBI refers to him as “a person of interest,” not necessarily a suspect but someone who has information about the case. Agent Jim Morrison believes Lee knows a lot more about the case than he has told them.

Television and newspaper media pick up on this aspect, and Lee’s name is always mentioned in conjunction with the fatal explosion. When major newspapers and journals across the country publish an anonymous manifesto by someone, now referred to as the Brain Bomber, who says that all the brightest scientists should be killed before they create more harm in the world (there would have been no atom bomb without an Albert Einstein, for example), Lee finds himself not just ostracized but constantly plagued by the media and the FBI agents. He is forced to take a polygraph test, which first seems to exonerate him but then is discarded because statistics suggest that the “lie detector” is not reliable when administered to people from certain groups, including Asians.

Complicating things for Lee and for the investigating agents is that immediately after the fatal bombing, Lee receives a long, unsigned letter, although Lee knows its source. The letter is from a disliked acquaintance from his past, Lewis Gaither, who says he has read about the bombing and wants to know if Lee is safe. Lee knows there is more to it than apparent concern; it is a taunting and an unwelcome reminder of long-ago events.

In an extended flashback, the reader learns that decades earlier Lee had been in graduate school with Gaither, and what started as a tentative friendship between them had ended badly. Gaither, less capable at math than Lee, was an ardent fundamentalist Christian who always wanted to convert people. He had insisted Lee accompany him and his wife to an evangelical gathering, but the result was unexpected. When Lee met Aileen, he learned she was equally antithetical to Gaither’s religious fervor, and they soon began a secretive affair. When Lee learned that Aileen was pregnant with Gaither’s child, he ended their relationahip. Aileen, however,...

(The entire section is 1700 words.)