As 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.
*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.