Pomp and Circumstance*

Academic MysteriesAs I post this, the university where I teach is holding its annual Commencement exercises. It’s a very special time for the graduates and their families, and there’s always a profusion of flowers, decorations, and so on.

If you’ve participated in Commencements, then you know that those events are filled with ritual, from the things that are said, to the caps, gowns and hoods people wear, to some of the things they do. The ceremonies themselves are a very traditional aspect of academia.

It’s all got me thinking about a recent post from Moira, who blogs at Clothes in Books. By the way, if you’re not already a fan of Clothes in Books, you will be after just one visit. It’s a treasure trove of fine book reviews and discussions of fashion and popular culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

Moira’s post described her list of the best mysteries set in schools. And she’s got a terrific set of novels, so you’ll want to check them out. There are a lot of novels and series set in the world of academia, and it’s not surprising. There’s that layer of tradition that I mentioned. But underneath it is the reality of a disparate group of people, each with a different agenda. And in the world of university, there’s also the reality of young people, many of whom are away from home for the first time. And let’s not forget the competitive nature of a lot of universities. Little wonder there’s so much rich context for a novel or a series.

There’s a lot to choose from, just within this group of crime novels. Here are a few that I’ve found really reflect the academic life at its best. And worst.

Fans of Dorothy Sayers’ work will know that Gaudy Night is set at fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford, the alma mater of Sayers’ mystery novelist, Harriet Vane. In that novel, she returns to Shrewsbury at the request of the Dean when some disturbing and mysterious things begin to happen. As she looks into what’s going on, readers get a sense of some of the pomp and even pageantry of traditional academic life. The novel shows what it was like to be at university at that time and in that place. I couldn’t agree more, fans of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, and of Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging.

There’s also Edmund Crispin’s Dr. Gervase Fen, Professor of English at fictional St. Christopher’s College, Oxford. These mysteries are whodunits that often feature the sort of ‘impossible but not really impossible’ sort of mystery that classic/Golden Age crime fiction fans often associate with writers such as John Dickson Carr. In fact, Fen refers to Carr’s creation, Dr. Gideon Fell, in The Case of the Gilded Fly.

Of course, times have changed since Sayers and Crispin were writing, and so has academia. Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels show readers university life from a more contemporary perspective. James is Head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. As such, she has to cope with challenges such as staffing, student issues, budgets, and ensuring that her department meets the requirements of outside examiners. She knows what goes on in her department, so she has a very useful perspective when murder occurs on and around campus. Among other things, these novels offer a look at the day-to-day life of a modern academic.

We also get that perspective in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She’s a Saskatchewan political scientist and, for the first several novels, a university professor. In novels such as A Killing Spring and Burying Ariel, readers get an ‘inside view’ of what it’s like to teach at a Canadian university.

Sarah R. Shaber has written an academic mystery series featuring Pulitzer Prize winning historian Simon Shaw. Shaw teaches at Kenan College near Raleigh, North Carolina. Because of his scholarly interest, these mysteries tie in historical elements with the modern-day plots, and with the realities of academic life.

There are several other examples of US-based academic mysteries, too. For instance, there’s Amanda Cross’ Kate Fansler series, set in New York. And two of Bill Crider’s mystery series (one featuring Carl Burns and the other featuring Sally Good) are set in colleges located in Texas. Oh, and my own Joel Williams novels are also academic mysteries, set in a fictional university town in Pennsylvania.

Novels and series that are set in a university context can take advantage of a lot of aspects of that setting. Universities draw together students from many different kinds of backgrounds, who may have any number of motivations. They also draw together professors, each with a different agenda. And then there’s the pressure on both students and members of the faculty, whether it’s pressure for high marks or for promotion/tenure. There’s also the fact that academic mysteries allow the author to explore a topic (such as literature, politics, history or archaeology). After all, professors have their own areas of research interest, and that can provide an interesting set of plot layers for the author. With all of that, it’s really little wonder that academic mysteries are so popular. And I’ve only touched on the ones that take place at college and university campuses.

Want more? Check out Moira’s excellent post. Thanks for the inspiration, Moira! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to put on my cap, gown and hood…



*NOTE: The title of this post is, of course, the commonly-known (at least in the US) title of Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1 in D, one of Sir Edward Elgar’s most famous compositions.


Filed under Amanda Cross, Bill Crider, Christine Poulson, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, Sarah R. Shaber

28 responses to “Pomp and Circumstance*

  1. R. T.

    Mystery: origins and explanations for caps, gowns, and hoods. I wager that not one in a millions graduating students could solve the mystery.

  2. I always enjoy novels set in colleges and universities. That’s one of the things I like about Reginald Hill’s novels – because of Elly’s job as lecturer, several of the books are either set in academia or have links to it. For a more recent example, I very much enjoyed Alice Clark-Platts’ debut novel, Bitter Fruits, set in the university town of Durham and giving a very contemporary and rather scary view of life for young students caught up in the dangers of social networking and the cyber bullying that can go along with it.

    • You know, you’re absolutely right, FictionFan. The Hill novels that are set in academic contexts do have a nice extra layer of interest, don’t they? And it makes a rather nice contrast to Dalziel. 😉

      Thanks also for the mention of Bitter Fruits. It’s been on my radar. It really does sound like a fine read.

  3. I haven’t read any academic-type crime novels, but they’re on my radar. Bitter Fruits that FictionFan mentioned sounds like it’d be up my alley. Great post as always, Margot. Enjoy the ceremony!

  4. Margot: I do love Gail Bowen’s books and keep hoping you might meet her some day.

    I would like to mention one of my favourite books last year – Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald. There are books within the book and a murder of a professor and the trials and tribulations of a grad student. Who could not be fascinated by whether Professor Quinn is playing a Godgame with her grad student?

    • Oh, yes, Bill, I remember your mentioning Another Margaret. It certainly sounds like a compelling story, and one I’d like to read. Thanks for the reminder. And I would love to meet Gail Bowen sometime. It’d be an honour.

  5. Death Before Wicket, in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, is a wonderfully atmospheric take on academic (and cricketing) life in 1920s Sydney.

    • Thank you, Caron. I like the Phryne Fisher series very much, so I’m glad you mentioned that one. It’s one I admit I’ve not read (yet), so thanks for filling in that gap.

  6. tracybham

    Some more good suggestions for academic mysteries here, Margot. I do plan to read Christine Poulson’s series and also continue further on Gail Bowen’s books. Thanks also for reminding me of Bill Crider’s books set in academia. I am concentrating on the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series right now, but would like to try those too.

    • Crider’s a talented author, isn’t he, Tracy? I hope you’ll get the chance to try those other examples of his work. As for Christine Poulson, I think her series is very well written. I recommend those novels if you get to them.

  7. I also enjoy a good academic mystery – it can become such a claustrophobic world at times that you forget about the larger world – perfect fodder for festering resentments and crime! And of course, you are too modest to mention your own, so I will do it for you! Both of your novels have an academic setting – a small college, with a former policeman who now teaches Criminal Justice doing most of the investigating.

    • Thank you, Marina Sofia – very much. And you’re quite about the claustrophobic atmosphere of many college and university settings. People do tend to focus so much on their studies, their research, and the like, that it’s easy to lose sight of the larger world. So the university context is a really effective setting for all kinds of fictional mayhem.

  8. Thanks for this Margot. I love a school/ campus set novel!

  9. Margot, Moira’s post on mysteries set in schools got me interested in reading that aspect of crime-fiction. Sometimes, inadvertently, I tend to ignore crime-mysteries that I perceive as being less gritty and hardboiled as the ones I usually read — which is doing a disservice to “crime on the campus” fiction. About Moira’s fascinating blog, I couldn’t agree more.

    • Doesn’t Moira have a fantastic blog, Prashant? And I think it does us all good, at least from time to time, to step out of our reading ‘comfort zones’ and try something new. You never know what you may find.

  10. kathyd

    There is also Tana French’s book, “The Secret Place,” although the investigation focuses on the students, not the faculty.
    And there’s Cornelia Read’s “The Crazy School,” too.

  11. Col

    I wouldn’t claim the setting is one of my favourites, but I’ve enjoyed the odd-academic setting. Gaudy Night waits patiently on the pile.

  12. Thanks for the mention Margot, how kind of you! We agree on so many of these books and settings, and it seems everyone else does too. And have picked up a few more recommendations from the post and comments… always welcome…

    • it’s always a pleasure to mention your excellent blog, Moira. Goodness knows I learn a lot from it! And you’re right; there is just something about the university setting, isn’t there?

  13. Thanks for the lovely mention, Margot! Ellie Griffith’s Ruth Galloway books also have an academic setting and I’ve been enjoying them very much recently.

    • It’s a pleasure, Christine, to talk about your work. And I couldn’t agree more about the Ruth Galloway series. The mysteries themselves are well-planned/written, and I do love the way Galloway does the setting.

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