In order to help out her friend Becca Parsons, who's dying of stomach cancer, Margaret Jameson agrees to take Becca's place for a year as Professor of Poetry at Ebbing College, in the middle of Pennsylvania, in the middle of nowhere. Caring for Becca and sharing her house promises to be a challenge for Jamie, whose rolling-stone life since she took her Ph.D.--a Fulbright Fellowship followed by a marriage to an experimental French novelist that would entitle her to call herself a countess except that she's to get a divorce--has kept her from holding a regular academic job. And of course more challenges await. The hundred- year-old manuscript by college donor Elizabeth Ebbing Brock that Jamie discovers, filled with fascinating revelations about Lizzie's lifelong liaison with her school friend Helen Breckenridge, disappears before she can arrange its publication, or even make copies, then reappears even more surprisingly. Preston Walters, the dean of faculty, sedately takes Jamie to bed, and then, when a quarrel arises over another of Jamie's lovers, promptly replaces her with authorized Ebbing family historian Sharon Reilly, who gets herself killed with almost indecent haste. The modern side of the mystery, however, carries much less weight than the 19th-century intrigue, which in turn is less definite than first-novelist Robinson's professional feel for the leisurely annual rhythms of college teaching. Readers with a distaste for loud noises and unwelcome surprises will find quiet echoes of Amanda Cross here, and intimations of a thinner, less disciplined Gaudy Night. Becca's gentle decline, the core of Jamie's year, is handled with firmness and sensitivity.