The university experience involves a lot more than just going to class and studying for exams. During people’s years at school, they often form very strong bonds with a group of other students and become close friends. Those friendships may start as bonds of convenience, forged because of proximity, but they can last a lifetime. It makes sense too, especially for young people who go away to university rather than live at home. There’s something special about the bonds we form with university friends; if you’ve been to college or university, you probably know what I mean. Those are the people you turn to for advice, for coffee, for lecture notes, for a study group, for beer money and for music, among other things. And all sometimes at two o’clock in the morning. So it’s no wonder that we see those kinds of friendships come up in crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the lives of several university students. His ever-efficient secretary Miss Lemon asks him to investigate a series of odd occurrences at a hostel managed by her sister Mrs. Hubbard. For one thing, some unusual things have gone missing, and there seems no logical explanation. Intrigued, Poirot visits the hostel where he makes the acquaintance of several of the young people. While he’s there, one of the residents Celia Austin admits that she’s responsible for most of the thefts. At first it looks as though the matter has been settled. But then, two nights later, Celia is poisoned. Now that it’s clear that something more than simple petty theft is going on, Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out what has been going on at the hostel. In this novel, we get a look at some of the ins and outs of the relationships among the young people. Some of them are friends; some are most emphatically not. One couple even pairs up in the end. It’s a really interesting portrait of the kind of bonds that can form during those years.
We see a bit of the long-term friendships that can evolve from university bonds in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane receives an invitation to attend the Gaudy Dinner and festivities at her alma mater Shrewsbury College, Oxford. At first she’s unwilling to go. She’s recently gotten some public notoriety (Sayers fans will remember these events from Strong Poison) and isn’t sure how she’ll be received. But this letter comes from an old friend Mary Stokes, with whom Harriet became very close while she was at school. Mary very much wants to see her old friend again, and this is what finally persuades Harriet to attend. She goes back to Shrewsbury and is happily surprised at the warm reception she gets. And that’s what I mean about college friends; the real ones welcome us, even after a long time, without judging. The Gaudy Day celebrations go off well and Harriet returns to her home, glad that she attended. Then a few months later she receives a letter from the Dean of the College. It seems some vandalism and other troubling events have been going on at the school, and the Dean would like the matter resolved and the person responsible stopped without involving the police. Harriet agrees and travels back to Shrewsbury under the guise of doing research for one of her novels. In the end, and after being attacked herself, she finds out that these incidents have to do with an old grudge someone has held.
The relationships among a group of friends play a major role in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets a call from Amelia Guntlieb, whose son Harald has been found murdered on the campus of the university at Reykjavík, where he was studying. The police are convinced that Harald’s friend Hugi Thórisson is the murderer and in fact, he’s been arrested for the crime. But Amelia doesn’t think that Hugi Thórisson killed her son. She wants Thóra to investigate the murder and clear Hugi’s name. Thóra agrees and works with the Guntlieb’s family banker Matthew Reich to find out who the killer is. Her starting point is the group of people with whom Harald spent most of his time – his student friends. During her interviews with them we can see that they’ve formed a very tight bond that’s important to them. Without spoiling the story I think I can say that that bond has a lot to do with one of the important aspects of this investigation.
In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, her sleuth Joanne Kilbourn investigates a murder that deeply affects the university where she teaches. Reed Gallagher, who’s Head of the School of Journalism, is murdered and his body discovered in a seedy apartment in an even seedier neighbourhood. Kilbourn is drawn into the mystery when Inspector Alex Kequahtooway from the Regina Police Force calls her with the news. She and Alex are already friends (you can follow up on that story in A Colder Kind of Death), and he wants someone to be with him to break the news to the victim’s widow Julie. Kilbourn already knows Julie (although you could hardly call them friends), so she agrees to go along. The police and Kilbourn look into Gallagher’s relationships with his wife, his colleagues, his friends and his students to find out who would have wanted to kill him. One thing that Kilbourn discovers is a possible connection between the murder and the odd behavior of one of Gallagher’s students Kellee Savage. She has her own personal issues but after the murder, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. Then one night after a trip to a bar with some of her classmates, Kellee disappears. When she’s later found dead Kilbourn knows she’ll have to find out the truth about that night and about Kellee from those friends. As she interviews them, we get a look at the kinds of relationships and friendships that develop among classmates. Her college friends are not the most important characters in this novel but they do play an important role in her share of the story.
There are also lots of crime novels in which we see connections among former university friends, even years after they’re no longer in school together. That’s what happens in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, in which social worker Simran Singh gets drawn into the case of fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, who apparently killed thirteen members of her family before setting her house on fire. There are signs though that Durga was raped and bound, so it’s quite possible that someone else might have been responsible. Simran’s old university friend Amarjit is now Inspector General for the state of Punjab, and he wants Simran to work with Durga and try to get her to talk about what happened on that awful night. It’s not long before Simran discovers that the wealthy and well-connected ‘respectable’ Atwal family was hiding some ugly secrets. Simran’s friendship with Amarjit is not the reason for the murders. But it plays an important role in her involvement with the case, and it’s a good example of the way university friendships can endure.
I’m fortunate enough to have a group of very good friends from university. I know that if I ever showed up at any of their doors at two in the morning and in need, they would take me in, no questions asked. Even after all these years. This post is dedicated to them.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line Neil Young’s Long May You Run.