Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For many people, there’s just something about the academic setting that lends itself particularly well to a crime novel. First there’s the physical setting, often lovely and full of history. Then, there’s the fact that university campuses bring together all sorts of diverse people with their own backgrounds, conflicts and so on. There’s also the fact of campus politics, which often have a role to play in university life. Put these together and you have quite a context for a murder mystery. Let’s take a closer look at one today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Christie Poulson’s Murder is Academic (AKA Dead Letters)
The novel begins with the death of Margaret Joplin, head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. Her colleague Cassandra James finds the body in the swimming pool when she goes to Joplin’s home to collect some final exam papers. At first, it looks as though the death was a terrible accident. But it’s not long before certain hints begin to suggest otherwise.
One possibility is that Joplin committed suicide. There doesn’t seem to be much motive, though, and James doesn’t really believe it. If it was murder, James now has to face the possibility that someone she knows could be a killer. And soon enough, it’s clear that the killer may be targeting her. As she gets to know more about her former boss, James sees that there’s more than one suspect. For one thing, Joplin had a complicated personal life. For another, there’s reason to believe someone from the department might have been responsible.
In the meantime, James has other matters on her mind. She’s been named Acting Head of the English Literature Department, which means increased administrative responsibility. It also means she will be responsible for getting the department ready for the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding depends critically on how successful it is at passing the exercise. It will be James’ responsibility to get everyone’s scholarship, including her own, up-to-date and impressive-looking.
As if that’s not enough, she discovers that she’s pregnant. She loves her partner (and the baby’s father) Stephen Lawton, but neither was ready for such a major change and permanent commitment. The pregnancy puts everything into a different light.
It also makes James more vulnerable as she tries to get everyone ready for the RAE and find out who killed Margaret Joplin before the killer gets to her first. In the end, and after another tragedy, James finds out the truth about how everything is connected. She also finds out some other surprising truths.
This is an academic mystery, so we get a close look at what life is like at a Cambridge college. There are papers to read and mark, plenty of campus politics and the inevitable student issues. And there is the never-ending pressure to publish, as well as the jockeying for funding. Life at Cambridge is certainly far from peaceful, even when there aren’t murders.
For all that, the novel also shows us the positive side of the academic life. There is a sense of camaraderie in the department, although everyone is shaken by the events in the novel. And of course there’s the beautiful Cambridge setting. There’s also the enjoyment these scholars get from their own literary interests. It may not be easy to be in academe, but these characters couldn’t really imagine not living the academic life.
And characters are an important element in this novel. First, there’s Cassandra James. An expert in Victorian literature, she’s independent and intelligent, and she enjoys what she does, despite its stresses. She isn’t overly keen to become a sleuth. At the same time, though, she feels the need to deal with her own sense of grief and loss at her boss’ death. There’s also the fact that discovering the body was a very traumatic experience for her. Part of looking for answers arguably has to do with her need to get closure for herself. As the novel moves on, and it’s clear that someone could very well be targeting her, we also see that James is as vulnerable as any of us would be, all the more so as her pregnancy progresses. She doesn’t take implausible chances, but at the same time, she wants to go on with her life and not give in to her fears.
There are other interesting characters in the novel as well. For instance, there’s Alison Stirling, the department’s specialist in 16th and 17th Century literature. And there’s Adien Frazer, the department’s newest hire, who has an Edwardian kind of look about him, and a real appeal for the female (and some of the male) students. There’s also her colleague Merfyn, who’s interested in séances and believes that he’s been channeling Arthur Conan Doyle as he writes. Each of them has a share of eccentricities, if you want to call it that, but they all contribute to the department. And they all contribute to the sense of atmosphere in the novel. Also, without spoiling the story, I can say that some of the situations involving them add some solid humour to it.
The mystery itself is a ‘whodunit,’ and when we learn the answer to that question, the ‘whydunit’ part is logical. And James discovers what really happened in a way that fits both her background and expertise, and the university setting. It’s also worth noting here that, while this isn’t a really light novel, there is a minimum of violence. The tension and suspense in the novel (and they certainly are there) are more psychological than they are dependent upon violence.
Murder is Academic is a uniquely ‘university’ academic mystery, with a distinctive Cambridge setting and characters who will be familiar to those who know the university context. It features a protagonist who fits into that context, and a close and sometimes wryly humourous look at life in the world of higher education. But what’s your view? Have you read Murder is Academic? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 28 July/Tuesday 29 July – The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach
Monday 4 August/Tuesday 5 August – The Anatomy of Death – Felicity Young
Monday 11 August/Tuesday 12 August – Salvation of a Saint – Keigo Hagashino