Thanks so much, Dorte, for hosting me on your blog. I’m excited and honored.
Dorte’s asked me to do a post on academic crime fiction murders. It’s an interesting topic, too. The traditional view of the college or university atmosphere is of a group of scholars, both students and their mentors, who seek out knowledge and share it. Students choose topics of interest, chart their course of study and, with guidance from their professors, earn their degrees. Faculty members conduct research, teach classes, serve on committees, and supervise student work. It all sounds very peaceful and for many people, it is. But the reality is, the academic atmosphere is often not the peaceful, serene gathering of scholars we’d like to imagine it is. I’ll be blogging next week about the campus setting on Mason Canyon’s terrific blog, Thoughts in Progress. For now, I’m going to focus on the politics of higher education. Academe is too often plagued with pettiness, politics and “turf wars,” not to mention personal and professional jealousy. So it’s no surprise that the academic atmosphere is the background for several crime fiction novels.
There’s a lot at stake among academics. One of the biggest things at stake is one’s rank. That’s what we see in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbor. In that novel, Sir Clixby Bream, Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, is preparing to retire. The two most likely candidates to replace him are Dr. Julian Storrs and Dr. Denis Cornford. Each of them would like to serve as the next Master of Lonsdale. Their wives are no less eager for their husbands to succeed to that position. Both candidates, and their wives, are hiding secrets in their pasts, though, and are not eager for anyone to find them out. Enter Geoffrey Owens, a journalist who has a habit of finding out people’s secrets and, more dangerously, has the habit of blackmail. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are already investigating the shooting death of Rachel James, who lives in Owens’ neighborhood, when they learn that Owens has been murdered, too. As they work to figure out who would want both James and Owens shot, Morse and Lewis find out what these academics were hiding. There are, of course, several other of Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels that deal with the politics of academia.
Besides rank, or maybe along with rank, tenure is another factor that can make the academic atmosphere so political and dangerous. Tenure is sought by just about every academic. It means an assured career, a higher rank, and several other benefits. Tenure isn’t easy to get, and the process can be fraught with politics. Most tenure recommendations are made by committees, so the candidate for tenure knows that she or he has to worry about not only the quality of work, but also about relationships. That’s the challenge that Connor Hadley faces in my own Publish or Perish. Hadley is up for tenure at Tilton University, but unfortunately, the Chair of the Promotion and Tenure Committee, Pete Nash, doesn’t like Hadley very much. Because of the resentment Nash bears him, Hadley is very much afraid he won’t get tenure, so he takes a desperate step. Shortly afterwards, his graduate student, Nick Merrill, dies suddenly one night from what looks like an accident, but is later proved to be murder. Former police officer-turned-professor Joel Williams gets involved in the case because Nick had been working with him on a project. He soon finds out that several people had a motive to kill Nick. One of them is Carrie Woods, a member of the department where Nick works. She also happens to be his lover. When she and Nick are found out, Carrie worries about what this could do to her career. It doesn’t help matters that she’s found out that Nick is also seeing someone else. Carrie cares for Nick, but she’s not ready to sacrifice her career for him. She’s among several people who could have been ruthless enough to kill Nick Merrill.
We see ruthlessness in other academic crime fiction as well. For instance, in Amanda Cross’ Death in a Tenured Position, Janet Mandelbaum goes up against some very ruthless people. She’s the first woman hired in Harvard’s English Department, and her male colleagues are, to say the least, not pleased about it. They have to accept her, though. A benefactor has left the school a million dollars to fund a chair for a woman, and the college is eager for the money. When Janet arrives at Harvard, she’s ostracized and made to feel unwelcome. Then, one day, she’s attending a tea when someone drugs her drink. She’s later found, drugged, on the floor of the men’s bathroom. At first, it seems that this is a campaign of protest against Janet Mandelbaum’s presence. Then, things turn lethal when Mandelbaum is poisoned. An acquaintance of Janet’s visits Columbia professor Kate Fansler, Cross’ sleuth, to ask her to get involved. Kate agrees to spend a term at Harvard, trying to find out who killed Janet Mandelbaum. It’s been argued that this book is dated, especially with regard to its portrayal of feminism. Still, it’s an interesting study of academic ruthlessness.
So is James Yaffe’s A Nice Murder for Mom. In that novel, English professor Stuart Bellamy is murdered by a blow to the head on the night of an important cocktail party being given by the Chair of the English Department at Mesa Grande College in Mesa Grande, Colorado. Mike Russo, another member of the department, seems to be the obvious suspect. He was passed up for tenure in favor of Bellamy, and Russo can’t account for his time during the period when the murder was committed. Russo claims that he’s innocent, though, and Ann Swenson, Mesa Grande’s Public Defender, decides to have the case investigated. For that, she chooses Dave, a former Bronx police officer who’s moved out to Mesa Grande to start over after the death of his wife, Shirley. Dave soon finds that Mike Russo wasn’t the only one with a grudge against Stuart Bellamy. Dave has to untangle the web of departmental politics, petty jealousy and resentment to find out who really killed Stuart Bellamy. Along the way, he gets help from his mother, who’s been visiting from New York, and whose common sense and intuition give him valuable clues to the case.
It’s not just faculty and staff members who get caught up in the politics and bad feeling that can sometimes be engendered by the university atmosphere. Competitiveness, bitterness, jealousy, and pettiness also happen among students at universities. For instance, in Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals, attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is offered a large sum of money to find out the truth behind the death of Harald Guntlieb, a German student living and studying in Iceland. Guntlieb was brutally murdered, and the police think they have the guilty party in custody – a fellow student and former friend of the dead man. But the Guntliebs don’t believe that this student is guilty, so they send their family’s representative, Matthew Reich, to Iceland to work with Thóra to uncover the truth about their son’s death. Along the way, Thóra and Matthew uncover some secrets that Harald’s friends have been keeping, and we get to see the pettiness and jealousy, as well as the interesting interactions among them.
In my own B-Very Flat, Serena Brinkman, a gifted violinist, dies suddenly on the night of an important music competition. Her partner, Patricia Stanley, is convinced that Serena didn’t die naturally, so she asks her advisor, Joel Williams, for help. Williams somewhat reluctantly agrees. He and the Tilton police begin to investigate the death, and in the process, get to meet several of Serena’s friends and fellow students, as well as her cousin. Practically all of them, as it turns out, had a motive to want Serena dead. For all of them, Serena stood between them and something they wanted or needed.
And of course, no discussion of crime in the academic atmosphere would be complete without a discussion of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, the story of Harriet Vane’s visit to her alma mater. She’s invited to Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to participate in the Gaudy Night festivities. A few months later, the Warden of the college writes to Harriet, asking her to return and help find out who’s responsible for some unsettling events at the college. Harriet reluctantly agrees and uses the cover that she’s doing some research. The acts of vandalism, threatening letters and other occurrences get worse, and in fact, almost cost Harriet her life. Lord Peter Wimsey comes to the college to help find out who is behind these frightening acts. He and Harriet find that it all has to do with academic politics and a grudge that someone is holding.
Academia isn’t always the safe, serene atmosphere we might wish it were. But that makes it especially effective for crime fiction. It’s one reason that I’ve used that atmosphere in my own novels.
Thank you again, Dorte, for your hospitality!
Remember to visit Margot´s fantastic blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist if you are not already one of her faithful readers.
And do you like academic crime fiction? Then you MUST read Publish or Perish and B-Very Flat, Margot´s delightful novels about professor Joel Williams.