January Magazine's continuing series of guides to the best in crime fiction's subgenres
Academia is a small world -- and it can be a touchy one. Some years ago, I organized a murder mystery party for friends in a university biology department. The way these parties work is that you present your guests with a murder scenario and clues, divide them into teams, and then send them off to solve the "crime." I'd been to a party like this, at which teams of journalists competed to find the killer of a key news source named "Ruby," a call girl with many high-profile clients in the state legislature. When I adapted the game for the biologists, I decided to give my victim a similar name: "Pearl." The character was conceived as a brilliant but promiscuous graduate student who, before her untimely death, had been involved with everyone from the laboratory janitor to the medical school dean.
Presented with this scenario, four teams of mild-mannered biologists and their guests, including the rather imposing Professor Thorpe and his wife, ventured off into the night in search of clues and the murderer. They returned around midnight, shouting their conclusions and waking up the neighbors on our peaceful university-area street. The murder mystery party was a huge success, and the following day one of Thorpe's grad students phoned to congratulate me.
"And, boy, did you have guts," he said, "calling the floozy 'Pearl.'"
"Why not?" I inquired.
"Oh my god," the grad student gasped. "We all thought you knew! Thorpe's first wife was a graduate student named Pearl."
"Am I in trouble?" I asked.
"Oh, no," said the grad student. "I think he enjoyed seeing her murdered."
On campus, motives for murder abound, ranging from philosophical differences and competition for grants and tenure to grade-obsessed students, faculty-student affairs and town-gown hostilities. Too much time in the library and laboratory can lead to overgrown intellects and underdeveloped social skills -- a fatal combination when so many people in academia have the means at hand to commit or to cover up a crime: laboratory chemicals, dangerous animals, international connections, obscure languages and scientific codes, and even, in some cases, cadres of brainwashed disciples ready to do their bidding. Add to this the hazard-strewn environments of most colleges (rivers, ravines, fields -- at the very least, a fountain, pond or pool) and you have a course catalogue for mayhem.
The academic mystery is, by its very nature, a cozy. As Reginald Hill observes in his essay, The Educator: The Case of the Screaming Spires: "What is a university but a large village? What is a college but a continuous house-party?"
In England, the academic mystery is virtually synonymous with Oxford University. That campus in the nation's heart was the setting for Dorothy Sayers' memorable Gaudy Nights; Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen series; Michael Innes' The Moving Toyshop; Colin Dexter's Last Bus to Woodstock; and Robert Robinson's Landscape with Dead Dons.
In the United States, the subgenre has been dominated since the 1970s by Amanda Cross' series about New York literature professor Kate Fansler. Cross' classic book is Death in a Tenured Position (1981). The delicious title is just a hint of the witticisms that abound in this tale of fatal overreaction to the hiring of a female professor at Harvard's English department.
The latest additions to the syllabus of collegiate crime are a varied lot, ranging from a fast-moving, hearty story set at a well-known football college, to a dark and moody novel in which a female student's murder is linked to sexual misconduct at an august British university club. The detectives are split about evenly between amateurs and professionals. The amateurs, not surprisingly, are professors who take advantage of their insider's knowledge to analyze a mystery. The professionals are cops and private eyes -- outsiders trying to comprehend the academic environment in which such an alarming number of people seem to have a motive for murder.
1. Death Calls the Tune (1999) is the ninth in Agatha Award-winning author M.D. Lake's series about Minnesota campus police officer Peggy O'Neill. In this outing, Peggy investigates the death of music professor Evan Turner, who apparently fell from a cliff while pursuing his photographic hobby at the university's conference center. Turner was a mediocrity as a musician, husband, professor and photographer. No one misses him except his young daughter and his wealthy grandmother, Dulcie Tyler Farr, who uses her clout as a university benefactor to demand that Peggy be assigned to investigate. It's a case of murder, of course, and Peggy discovers further that Turner's death is intricately linked to that of a brilliant musician with whom he had performed 20 years earlier.
2. Cambridge, England, has long played second fiddle to Oxford when it comes to academic mysteries. But Michelle Springs thrusts Cambridge into the spotlight with Nights in White Satin (1999), a dramatic novel about the darker side of academic life. When an elegantly dressed young woman abandons her date and disappears from the university's May Ball, officials call in private investigator Laura Principal in hopes that they can avoid alerting the police. Laura finds disturbing and contradictory evidence about the missing woman. Had she been sexually assaulted by members of the university's prestigious Doric Club? Or was she a prostitute? Laura's investigation reveals campus secrets dating back to the 1960s, and leads to the death of a campus tutor. This is the fourth book in Springs' Laura Principal series.
3. The poisoning death of an Oxford don is told, Rashomon-like, by four different narrators in Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998). Set in 17th-century England, the tale involves forensic medicine, cryptography and real-life figures such as the philosopher John Locke, and is set against a backdrop of political intrigue. One of the narrators, mathematician John Wallis, believes that the poisoned drink given to his colleague Dr. Grove had been intended for him. Fingerpost is often compared to Umberto Eco's acclaimed historical mystery, The Name of the Rose, because both books focus on a search for truth in a environment distorted by passion, mistrust and duplicity. While decidedly less fluid and mystical than Eco's work, Pears' intricate and detailed story of life and murder in Restoration England nevertheless makes a fascinating read.
4. In the States, "Notre Dame" means "football," so it comes as no surprise that the murder in Ralph McInerny's Lack of the Irish (1998) is tied to a game -- specifically, to a match against the Catholic college's Baptist rival, Baylor University. Private eye Philip Knight is hired by the college to find out who killed an unpopular administrator. Was it her husband? An unstable colleague? Someone involved with a theological convention the bureaucrat had organized? Knight and his brother Roger, a Notre Dame philosophy professor, work in concert in this fast-paced and humorous book about sports fever and religious fervor. McInerny, best known as the author of the Father Dowling mysteries, began the Philip and Roger Knight series in 1997 with On This Rockne.
5. Language arts professor and amateur sleuth Nick Hoffman is never going to get tenure unless he publishes more and investigates less. But when two students are murdered on the Michigan campus where he teaches, Hoffman can't resist looking into it. The Death of a Constant Lover (1999) is Lev Raphael's third book about Hoffman, a gay academic with a sharp eye for crime. The writing is sleek, stylish and sometimes snippy, as Hoffman and his partner, writer Stefan Borowski, expose the worst of the academic establishment. Raphael is giving the staid subgenre of academic mysteries a deft makeover that many readers find refreshing.
Here are a few more academic standouts to add to your reading list:
Bimbos of the Death Sun (1988), by Sharyn McCrumb. This is is a howlingly funny look at the world of science fiction aficionados. Engineering professor James Mega has written a moderately successful hard-science SF novel that, to his horror, was published under the title Bimbos of the Death Sun. Fortunately, he wrote it under a pen name. But Mega's cover is blown when he reluctantly agrees to speak at a local SF convention and is recognized by some of his students. After the convention's insufferable celebrity guest is murdered, Mega takes a reluctant plunge into the bizarre world of computer gamers and costumed fantasy fans in order to uncover the murderer.
The Bloodied Ivy (1988), by Robert Goldsborough. The author does an impressive job of bringing back Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to investigate the death of an egocentric right-wing intellectual at a small college in upstate New York. The local police dismiss it as an accident, but Goodwin discovers that the professor's demise cleared the way for a major gift to the university from a left-wing benefactor.
The Charles Dickens Murders (1998), by Edith Skom, is set, not in England as you might expect, but at the University of Chicago. English professor Beth Austin investigates the unsolved murder of one of her mother's college classmates back in the 1940s. Her mother was involved with a racy set called the Fourth Floor Gang, whose jealousies and backstabbing escalated well beyond the usual campus capers. Their leader, the daughter of a gossip columnist, was murdered and her death has never been solved. Intrigued by her mother's story, Austin takes time off from her lectures on Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood to investigate. Crime fiction purists may think this book a little contrived -- Austin finds clues from Dickens' Bleak House and Drood -- but Skom (The George Eliot Murders and The Mark Twain Murders) is a writer with a lively style and original ideas.
Exit the Milkman (1996), by Charlotte MacLeod. This is the most recent in MacLeod's series of clever cozies about Peter Shandy, amateur sleuth and professor of agronomy at Balaclava Agricultural College. Shandy, assisted by his wife Helen, investigates peculiar crimes, deals with weird neighbors and colleagues and does battle with the college's publicity-phobic president. In Exit the Milkman, an unpleasant faculty wife is found murdered and her husband turns up suffering from amnesia.
Ruins of Civility (1996), by James Bradbury. Architectural detail abounds in this elegantly-written book, the second in a series about Princeton University professor and amateur detective Jamie Ramsgill. On a visit to Cambridge University, Ramsgill finds that his architecture colleague Professor Rainer Grass has vanished, shortly after a party at which Grass had a heated argument with the student who was his lover. Several colleagues and students at the party -- as well as Grass' wife -- had reason to want the professor dead and, Ramsgill discovers, to commit additional murders.
Two Murders in My Double Life (1999), by Josef Skvorecky. The story of murder at a small Canadian college is juxtaposed with a dark tale of character assassination in post-Communist Czechoslovakia, with amusing and moving results. The campus stereotypes in this mystery -- from sexually adventurous students to grimly competitive faculty members -- are particularly hilarious as seen through the eyes of Skvorecky's narrator, a world-weary Czech émigré. | October 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine. Her most recent exposure to academia was an editing job at an Italian university, where the university president had to be addressed as "Il Magnifico."