13 June 2017

It's Academic!

Growing up, I was one of those nerdy kids who liked school. Not all subjects, and not all teachers, but I loved reading and history and got mostly A's (at least in elementary school). After completing college summa cum laude, I went on to get a graduate degree in journalism, and then after working a few years, went back to school and got a law degree. As I've liked to joke, there's no such thing as too much education.
My interest in education continued after graduation. When I was a newspaper reporter, I covered primary and secondary schools. School board meetings? Sign me up. Visiting classrooms to see how students were learning and write articles that gave their parents a virtual seat in the classroom. Loved it. And when I worked as an attorney, I specialized in higher education, first assisting colleges with compliance with state and federal regulations, among other things, and then working for a student-loan provider and servicer. I might not be a teacher or professor, but education sure is in my blood.

"Asps. Very dangerous. You go first."
And that's why one of the types of books and stories I love to dig into are academic mysteries. So I was jazzed to read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (yes, for pleasure reading) a couple of days ago titled "From Indiana Jones to Minerva McGonagall, Professors See Themselves in Fiction." The Chronicle surveyed their readers' favorite professors in TV, movies, and books, and the winner was ... Indiana Jones, the main character in Raiders of the Lost Ark and three subsequent films.

Why is Jones so popular? Who wouldn't love a Nazi-hunting, boulder-dodging, snake-hating scholar who travels the world between classes, seeking archeological treasures and fighting bad guys? Quoting William Purdy, a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles, the Chronicle said, " 'One of the hard knocks against academics is we’re in an ivory tower and not in touch with the world. He’s a straight response to that criticism.' "

I ditto that. Indeed, the Indiana Jones movies are more action-adventure stories than campus mysteries, but there's crime at the heart of all of these tales, so they fall within my definition of the genre.

That said, there are also a lot of great crime novels set on college campuses. Just a few weeks ago, The Semester of our Discontent by Cynthia Kuhn won the Agatha Award for best first mystery novel published in 2016. Set at a prestigious fictional college, the novel showcases an English professor embroiled in departmental politics and murder. Here are just a few other mysteries involving academics that I've enjoyed:
  • The Red Queen's Run by Bourne Morris (more department politics and murder) - the first in a series
  • Murder 101 by Maggie Barbieri (a professor is accused of killing her student, which I bet a lot of professors dream about but few would admit to) - the first in a series
  • Artifact by Gigi Pandian (a historian described as the female Indiana Jones--the first in a wonderful series, but so far, no Nazis)
  • Fifty Mysteries by our own John M. Floyd (fifty short stories involving retired schoolteacher Angela Potts. They're not exactly academic mysteries, but I love Angela Potts, and she used to be a teacher, so I'm listing her.)
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Yes, they're set at a secondary school, but it's a magical school, and they're wonderful, and there sure is mystery in these books, so I count 'em. 
    "Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it."
Other academics that made the Chronicle's list of favorite academics:
  • Charles Kingsfield from The Paper Chase
  • John Keating from Dead Poets Society
  •  Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series
Want to read the whole Chronicle article? Click here.

And please share your favorite academic mysteries in the comments. I know there are a lot more I could have listed. What academic mystery books/series/stories/movies/TV shows do you love and why?


  1. Perhaps my favorite: Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason‘s The Rule of Four

    also: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

    1. I think I own a copy of The Rule of Four, but I haven't read it yet.

  2. TRoF is supposedly based on Princeton. The tunnels have a real feel in the story. Perhaps the weakest part is the murder itself, but the academic mystery is terrific.

  3. Don't forget to add Gaudy Night, the great Dorothy Sayers mystery to your excellent list.

  4. Janice beat me to it! Gaudy Night is tops--not a professor as sleuth, but the setting is so richly academic. One of my favorite Ross Macdonald novels, The Chill, is also set in part on a college campus. I'll try to think of others.....

    Fun post here, Barb!

  5. Barb, I loved this--great list. And thank you for mentioning my book! Those little "series" mystery stories are a lot of fun to write.

    Leigh, I have both The Name of the Rose and The Rule of Four sitting right here on my shelves. And if you liked The Rule of Four you'll also like Caldwell's The Fifth Gospel.

    One more thing: John Keating is the role I like to remember when I think of Robin Williams.

  6. I have so much to read and to add to my TBR room. Thanks for weighing in, Janice, Art, and John, with your good ideas. More, please!

  7. I still love Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. He was a complete SOB, but he was never wrong. Every teacher I knew watched the series just to see a teacher who was respected and revered for his competence and principles at a time when were were getting bombarded on every side.

    Does anyone else remember the Amanda Cross mysteries? I read a couple years ago and remember few details except that the character was a college professor (English, maybe?) and the stories often involved literature or some other academic subject.

    Would Possession by A. S. Byatt qualify? It's not a mystery per se, but it's definitely academic. I'll probably think of a dozen other suggestions as soon as I post this...

  8. Thank you for including me, Barb! So kind. And I agree with you on the others you listed--enjoyed them all. (The only one there I haven't read is John M. Floyd, and I will add to the TBR list promptly. Thanks for the rec.)

    My list of favorites is very long--I'm admittedly obsessed with academic mystery--but it would include the Kate Fansler series by Amanda Cross, the Karen Pelletier series by Joanne Dobson, and the Murder 101 series by Maggie Barbieri. Standalones: almost everything by Carol Goodman, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Possession by AS Byatt, and Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin.

    I'm sure I'm forgetting something... :)

  9. Oh Steve, I just saw yours. YES to Amanda Cross!

    And I do count Possession as a mystery. They're sleuthing...scholars. :)

  10. Interesting post, Barb. I definitely have to echo Janice's and Art's praise of Gaudy Night--it's my favorite mystery novel of all time, the one that turned me into a mystery reader and (eventually) writer. Your post also sparked memories of a wonderful academic mystery by Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes. I read it a long, long time ago and don't remember it clearly--this exchange has made me want to read it again.

  11. I love books by Amanda Cross, the pen name of Carolyn Heilbrun, Columbia professor.

  12. B.K.,
    Yes! Josephine Tey.

    The Daughter of Time is certainly academic, trying to solve the mystery of the princes in the tower under Richard III.

    How did I leave that out?

  13. Lori Rader-Day's first novel, The Black Hour, is a great on-campus thriller. And for something really different involving an English prof run amuck, Unreliable by Lee Irby.

  14. I read Lori Rader-Day's first book. Good book. All the rest of these mentioned books ... well, I have a lot of reading to do, clearly. Thanks for the tips, Steve, Cynthia, Bonnie, Valerie, and Karen.

  15. Charlotte Macleod's "Peter Shandy" series, about a TOTALLY bizarre faculty in a preposterous (but lovely!) agricultural college in western Massachusetts... firmly, no, beYOND that, tongue-in-cheek! He's a botanist and researcher, his wife an academic librarian and English teacher.

    Concur re Amanda Cross and Sayers. Good stuff.

    I knew there was one more: Ruth Dudley Edwards' "Baroness Jack" series, oh, boy, is SHE a piece'o'work! well, actually she doesn't show up until the fifth book in the "Robert Amiss, civil servant/PI" series, but then she pretty much RULES! It's called MATRICIDE AT ST. MARTHA'S (College). Caveat: while she and the series continue for several books more, and she continues as Mistress of the College, the majority of the stories are not academically set.

    aren't at least some of the Jane Haddam "Gregor Demarkian" series set in schools? The early in the series Halloween-themed one, I remember, (she was still centering the series around holidays then); and a much later, extremely well-reviewed one about a Headmaster, and/or his wife??!
    aha, found the info: 1991's QUOTH THE RAVEN #4, at a small Pennsylvania college. and 2004's THE HEADMASTER'S WIFE #20.

  16. just remembered, somebody mentioned Josephine Tey's very well-known DAUGHTER OF TIME as being sort-of academic (hospital-set but scholarly), right? IMO her very best novel is MISS PYM DISPOSES, about the odd and frequently nasty goings-on at an elite girls' school. The dynamics and interpersonal relationships between the students, within the faculty, and also between both camps, are superbly chilling! The titular Miss Pym is a genteel and submissive teacher who comes to realize she has a great deal of power over people's lives....

    It's subtly drawn, and very chilling.

  17. Mary Stewart's My Brother Michael. (spoiler alert) Stewart created the perfect hero in Simon. The classics prof who, when the chips are down, can defend himself and his woman in kill or be killed, hand to hand combat. My kind of guy. (swoon)

  18. Abbey and Mel, thanks for your suggestions. So many books to read! Yay!

  19. Barb! Thanks so much. Currently mulling over a new Alison story and so glad she made your list! Maggie

  20. Miranda James Cat in...series set in a college town, mainly in the library

  21. One of the series of the wonderful Paula Gosling was based in Michigan and about a college professor. Anything by her is well worth a read.


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