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.
What an interesting post Margot.
Academia is obviously a very dangerous place with almost as much back stabbing as hospitals, dental schools and dental surgeries. ;o)
Dorte, thanks for having Margot here! Margot always is so knowledgeable about mysteries and I love hearing what she has to say.
I think what fascinates me about academic mysteries is the juxtaposition of this world ruled by intellect with the baser world of murder. Thanks for telling us a little more about it, Margot!
Norman - Thank you : ). Yes, there's no doubt that academia is rife with all kinds of pettiness, jealousy, backstabbing and greed. I suppose, really, though, that no place is immune from those things. Still, I didn't know that about dental schools and surgeries. Hmm.... ;).
Elizabeth - Thanks for such kind words : ). It is interesting, isn't it, how even in a place where intellect is suppose to be in charge - it isn't always. And in fact, sometimes when the brain rules compassion, that's just as dangerous... That's what Poirot says in Hickory Dickory Dock, and he's got a point.
Hello Margot, nice to have met you and thanks for an interesting post.
Petty - It's a pleasure to meet you, too, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on it.
So many writers of the genre (and all genres for that matter) rely upon academia for their principal livelihood, what with compensation for writing being such a brass-ring on the merry-go-round, so it seems more than natural that campuses become settings for crime novels. Besides, as I can confirm, life as an academic is fertile ground for homicidal thoughts, and those can be channeled into less criminal (and life threatening) directions through writing rather than murdering. :-)
First, thank you so much Margot. You are a wonderful blog-sitter!
And thank you to all my readers for visiting and commenting.
R.T. - LOL! I know exactly what you mean, having been in academia myself for many years. It is a logical match, isn't it, between academis and writing, not only because of grants, tenure and so on, but also because of the nurturing of ideas that's supposed to go on in academia. It is a natural fit...
Dorte - It is I who should thank you; you are a most generous, hospitable blog-host : ).
Dorte, thanks for hosting Margot.
Margot, it's always a delight to read your post. I learn something new and you get my brain to thinking. On the surface I just wouldn't think about the academic world being so 'cut-throat.' I can see the endless possibilities from your post and why it makes for a great murder mystery backdrop.
Thoughts in Progress
Really nice post, Margot. I do like an academic mystery - and completely endorse what Dorte writes about Publish or Perish and B Very Flat as lovely examples of the genre.
Mason, do not be surprised about the "cut throat" mindset within academia; collegial cooperation and fellowship takes a distant back seat to each individual's tenure applications and publication pressure. The world ought to be surprised that murder is simply sublimated into fiction rather than acted out on campuses more frequently.
Working at a university for 20 years has given me a great understanding of why many professors end up dead in fiction. A good form of displacement.
Mason - Thank you; you're very kind : ). You wouldn't think on the surface that academics would be the murderous kind, but the reality is, it really can be a cuthroat, backstabbing business. And I truly look forward to my visit to you next week, so I can talk about the campuses where these things take place : ).
Maxine - Oh, how very, very kind of you *blush*. Thank you. And yes, academic mysteries can be lots of fun : ).
RT - Thanks for your comment. You're right; it is surprising that there aren't more real-life examples of this kind of murder than there are....
Patti - LOL! Oh, you said that so much better than I could have. Thank you : ). You're right; it really is a good form of displacement. But don't give my students any ideas, please... ; ).
Very interesting post, as ever, Margot. I hope it attracts even more readers to your splendid blog. I'm a big fan of Colin Dexter's books, but I have rather more mixed feelings about Amanda Cross's. Some are really good, but one or two didn't quite do it for me.
Thanks for having Margot as your guest blogger, Dorte, and thanks to Margot for an interesting entry!
I should have my daughter read this. She just completed her undergraduate degree and is headed for grad school in the fall with plans to eventually teach on the university level. Sounds like it might be a dangerous profession!!
Martin - Thank you; you're very kind. I must agree with you, too, about Amanda Cross' novels. They are a bit more uneven than the consistently fine Colin Dexter, aren't they?
Kelly - Thank you : ). And yes, the academic life can be dangerous; you may want your daughter to know.. ; ).
Finally back home after 8 ½ hours´ examination!
Thank you all for keeping the conversation going, and especially you, Margot, for your engagement!
Dorte - No need to thank me; it's been an honor to keep your blog warm for you : ). I truly appreciate the hospitality, and I promise, I cleaned up after myself ; ).
How sweet of you to write such a long interesting feature of "The Academic Life" on Dorte's blog. It also shows me, that you are truly, a brilliant writer, who deserves all the applause's you are receiving. Thank you for sharing.
How amazing is that. I mean to have such a well-knowing writer to write on your blog. I'm very impressed. Nonetheless, you are such a talented writer yourself, and I can't wait for the day, where all your effort and hard work, rightfully will come to shine upon you.
Poly: thank you very much for your kind and generous comment!
And I will have famous guest bloggers again next week. Many published writers are really kind and helpful when you ask for a post.
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