And What Could Ever Lead You Back Here Where We Need You*


Lots of people feel a sort of bond with their school, whether it’s secondary school or university. And that’s logical too, since so many important life experiences happen during those years. Alumni groups rely on that bond for donations, and it makes for good ‘networking’ too for recent graduates. It can be just the thing that tips the proverbial scales for a job applicant if the prospective employer finds out that they share an alma mater.

That bond is often the reason alumni return to their schools for visits. It can also be what draws a fictional sleuth into a mystery. And school/university connections and ‘networks’ can play an important role in those stories. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series takes place for the most part at Oxford, and several plots involve alumni returning to the university. In The Case of the Gilded Fly for instance, journalist Nigel Blake returns to Oxford when the Oxford repertory theatre schedules a run of Robert Warner’s new play Metromania. Blake is a bit of a hanger-on among the cast and crew because he admires one of the actors Helen Haskell. He’s also interested in renewing his acquaintance with his former mentor Gervase Fen. In fact, he’s visiting Fen’s rooms one night when they hear a gunshot. It turns out that actor Yseute Haskell, Helen Haskell’s half-sister, has been murdered. Fen is a friend of Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman, so he gets involved in the investigation as Sir Richard looks into the case. And when Blake finds out that Helen has become a suspect, he gets involved too.

Crispin fans will also know that The Moving Toyshop concerns an almunus returning to Oxford. This time it’s poet Richard Cadogan. He returns to Oxford for a rest, but finds his trip anything but peaceful. Late one night, he’s taking a walk when he sees a toyshop. The door’s unlocked and mostly out of curiousity, he goes in, only to find the body of an old woman. Before he can do anything about it, Cadogan is hit on the head and knocked unconscious. The next morning, he tries to tell the police what happened, but they don’t believe him. They say there’s never been a toyshop in that place. But Cadogan’s university friend Gervase Fen believes him. Fen works with Cadogan to try to find out what really happened, but his work’s made more difficult when Cadogan gets himself in trouble for an entirely different reason…

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane gets an invitation to visit her alma mater at Oxford for its annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. She’s not inclined to attend, mostly because she has no idea of the reception she’d receive after being accused of murder (see Strong Poison for the details of that). But when a former classmate particularly asks that she go, Vane changes her mind. The bond she feels with her classmates and the faculty convinces her to travel to Oxford, and she gets a very warm reception there. But things soon start to turn ominous. First, Vane gets an anonymous note accusing her of murder. Then, she gets a letter from the dean of her college, saying that there’ve been other incidents too, including vandalism. The dean wants Vane to come back to Oxford and investigate. This Vane agrees to do, under the guise of doing research for a novel. It turns out that what’s happening at Oxford is more dangerous than just a nasty note, and has everything to do with a past incident.

Val McDermid’s Report For Murder also concerns returning alumni. Derbyshire House Girls’ School is desperately in need of funds. So teacher Paddy Callaghan uses the ‘old girls’ network’ to contact Perspectives and persuade them to do a piece on the school and its fundraising efforts. Callaghan’s friend Lindsay Gordon will do the piece, and although a school like this is against Gordon’s principles, the money from the commission is not. So she travels to the school. There she meets TV personality Cordelia Brown, who’s also there to do publicity for the school. One of the big fundraising events will be a Gala and concert featuring famous cellist and alumna Lorna Smith-Couper. But everything goes wrong when Smith-Couper is murdered. School authorities know that the media will descend on the school after the killing and there’ll be all sorts of terrible publicity. So Gordon and Brown agree to do what they can to keep the story as quiet as possible. If they’re going to do that though, they’ll need to find out who the killer is…

Amateur detective Charles Lenox returns to his alma mater Oxford in Charles Finch’s historical mystery The September Society. It’s 1866 in London, and Lady Annabelle Payson is concerned because her son George has disappeared from his rooms at Lincoln College. Lady Annabelle wants Lenox to visit Oxford and see if he can trace George’s whereabouts. Lenox agrees, thinking that this is going to be a straightforward case. But the weird clues left behind suggest that there’s more to the disappearance than a young man who wanted to take off for a few days. One of the clues is a card with a cryptic reference to a secret group called The September Society, and Lenox follows up on that. Then there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that this will be a very complex and possibly very dangerous case.

Very often that university/school bond allows alumni to stay in touch and help one another. This is what happens in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman is slowly (and not yet really successfully) coming to terms with the death of her beloved husband Stefan. One day she gets an anonymous letter making it clear that she’s being stalked. The stalker even seems to have access to her case files. Then she’s set up for a drink-driving incident. Other things too occur that seem designed to sabotage her professional reputation. Then the body of a client Sara Matteus is found in the water on Bergman’s property. It’s set up to look like a suicide; there’s even a note blaming Bergman. But the police soon establish that the victim was murdered. Bergman own name is cleared soon enough, but it’s now obvious that someone is out to ruin her life – or even end it. To try to find out who that person might be, Bergman and police officer Markus Stenberg visit a former classmate from Stockholm University Vijay Kumar. Bergman, Kumar, and Bergman’s best friend Aina Davidson were in graduate school together and still have a bond. Bergman is hoping that Kumar, who’s become an expert in profiling, will be able to give them some insight into the kind of person who may be stalking her. The information Kumar offers doesn’t solve the case. But it does provide a very useful perspective, and we can see how the ‘university bond’ works.

The school/university years can have a powerful impact. So it’s no surprise that one’s alma mater can draw one back. Where have you seen this plot point?


ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Yes, I’m a proud alumna.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Sebastian’s Welcome Back.


Filed under Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Charles Finch, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Val McDermid

20 responses to “And What Could Ever Lead You Back Here Where We Need You*

  1. Just for the sake of -ahem!- balance, I was racking my brains to find alumni going back to Cambridge to solve a murder… but I can’t think of anything except Alison Bruce’s Gary Goodhew (and I’m not entirely sure he is a Cambridge graduate).
    Clearly, Cambridge is too lovely and green to produce such single-minded devotion to murder… (she said, completely impartial as always).

    • Marina Sofia – You know, I completely and totally agree with you about balance. I do. You may want to try Christine Poulson’s Cambridge mysteries. Her sleuth is a professor there, and the stories really are quite good. And then there’s Elizabeth George’s For the Sake of Elena, which has to do with the murder of a Cambridge student. There: a step towards more balance in this post…

      • That was the first Elizabeth George I ever read – for the sake of its setting – and then I got hooked on the series. And yes, you’ve mentioned the Christine Poulson before, I really need to check them out, they’re not that easy to find here. Plus I second Clarissa’s remark: I really want to read your books, but it’s hard to get them (P&P nearly more than the books) if they are not in e-format.

        • Marina Sofia – I hope you do get the chance to read Poulson’s work. Among other things, it really does evoke the Cambridge setting. And thanks for your kind interest in my own books. I wish they were available in e-format. But for complicated and very frustrating reasons, they’re not.

  2. An intriguing lot of books there, Margot, and a plotline I always find enjoyable. Something to do with people not turning out quite the way they expected in their youthful confidence, maybe. I’ll put in a plug for one of my new favourites, if I may – John Gaspard’s ‘The Bullet Catch’ which begins when the hero, Eli Marks, is persuaded to attend his school reunion, and meets up with the girl he had a teenage crush on – they’re fairly light books, these, but with good strong plots and great characterisation.

    • FictionFan – Feel free to put in a plug any time. And the Gaspard does sound like a good ‘un. Certainly it fits in with this general theme of going back to one’s alma mater. I think you’re right that part of the appeal of that plot line is the difference between the person one is at uni or secondary school, and the person one is now. It’s especially interesting when people who haven’t seen a character in the intervening years have to get used to the character as s/he is now – and the character sees a ‘younger’ self, if that makes sense.

  3. LOL — I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a suspense novel using a high school 50th class reunion (mine was in 2010). I just can’t decide who to make the victim and who to make the killer. 😀

  4. I always love a campus mystery, and I second your praise for Christine Poulson’s marvellous books set in Cambridge. And I also have a huge soft spot for Gaudy Night, the alumna book par excellence, glad to see you mention It.

    • There is something about a campus mystery isn’t there, Moira? And I agree: Poulson’s work is terrific. I hope there will be more Cassandra James novels. As for Gaudy Night, I think it really shows life at Oxford at that time, the growth we undergo after uni, and the ties that bind one to one’s alma mater. Oh, and it’s a great mystery too.

  5. I’ve read Gaudy Nights. Great book. I have Val’s book but haven’t read it yet. Now I want to get started. Aren’t your books set on campus? BTW, what’s new with your books? Please tell me your next one will be in EBOOK format.

    • Clarissa – I hope you’ll like Report For Murder. I know you’re a McDermid fan, so you probably will. Thanks very much for asking about my work. Right now I’m trying to decide what to do about my Joel Williams series. And there’s a standalone in the works. And trust me; I want my books available in e-format as much as anyone does. I really appreciate your interest!

  6. Col

    Not familiar with any of the examples, though I’m fairly sure I have GAUDY NIGHT somewhere.

  7. I also like a campus setting. There’s so much potential for crime and suspects there, as the examples in your post so rightfully point out. Alumni reunions are not always joyful occasions, so beware. 🙂 .

    • Carol – It’s true that campus settings just lend themselves to a great context for a crime novel. And when you add alumni into it, with all of their pasts, their secrets and their interactions, it all makes for a terrific crime plot. Beware indeed of reunions! 🙂

  8. I don’t know that it was a case of drawing him back but I remember that the first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, involved Spenser being hired by a university to find said missing manuscript.
    As for Cambridge, there’s Nora Kelly’s In the Shadow of Kings.
    Agree that Gaudy Night is the quintessential alumna novel.

    • Bryan – Thanks for those additions. I hadn’t thought of the Robert B. Parker, but it certainly could fit. I confess I’ve not read the Kelly, but I’ve heard it’s good.

  9. I couldn’t think of anywhere less that I’d like to set a book than my old school. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. It just wasn’t very atmospheric. But I do like the odd school mystery. ‘Cat among the Pigeons’ is a favourite.

    • Sarah – It’s true; not every school has that sort of atmosphere. But Meadowbank certainly does, doesn’t it? I’ve always liked Cat Among the Pigeons very much, too.

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