Last month when the Tuesday Night Bloggers looked at Holidays and Excursions I did a post on why writers might want to set their novels either on a holiday or within a mode of transport. So for this week’s post I decided to do something similar with our new theme of academic mysteries. Why use them? And I also touch on why writers might want to make their amateur sleuth an academic.
Reason No. 1: Evil Enters Eden
W. H. Auden in his famous essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ (1948) suggests that the ideal setting for a detective novel should be ‘Eden-like,’ as the more this is the case ‘the greater the contradiction of murder.’ In his mind ‘the corpse’ is much more ‘shock[ing]’ when it is most ‘out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.’ And critics such as Rosemary Herbert and John E. Kramer (1999) suggest that the academic milieu is one such setting, as they go on to say that some writers ‘portray the academic milieu as an ordered environment… which is disrupted by the intrusion of violence. In the work of such writers, the detective’s goal is to restore order in an essentially good place’ (Herbert and Kramer, 1999: 3). This notion of ‘intrusion’ can be particularly felt in Sayer’s Gaudy Night (1935), where there seems to be a poison pen writer and a poltergeist. Furthermore the idea of the mystery novel setting being like Eden, is perhaps easier to depict in this setting because of the way academic milieus are sometimes set: cut off and separate from the rest of the community, as in Gaudy Night there is a feeling of the academics being cloistered. But this separateness also leads to vulnerability which I will discuss later. An Oxford Tragedy (1933) by John C. Masterman is another example where there is impetus to restore “order” to the college in order for it go back to normal.
Reason No. 2: Rot in the Foundations
However, there are crime writers who use the academic milieu for the very opposite purpose, ‘look[ing] at the academic milieu as a place populated by faculty who do not live up to the noble goals that the academic life would seem to promise. In the work of these writers, any crime exacerbates already existing pettiness, personality clashes, professional jealousies, and competitiveness among the characters…’ (Herbert and Kramer, 1999: 3). In this situation a restoration of the Eden-like status is not going to happen, as such writers are suggesting that the academic institution in question was far from perfect in the first place and the crimes that take place serve to make those inside and outside of the institution aware of this. Some key examples of this can be found in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour (1996) and The Silent World of Nicolas Quinn (1977). In the latter novel particularly, Morse’s investigation exposes the corruption going on in the Oxford Foreign Examinations Syndicate.
Reason No. 3: Variation on a Theme
Back to W. H. Auden again and another requirement he talks about in his essay for a good detective novel is that there is ‘a closed society so that the possibility of an outside murderer… is excluded.’ The academic milieu again can meet this requirement (like the snow bound country house party or group of holiday makers on an island), where there is a cast of suspects who are bonded together by their chosen vocation and the fact they live and work within one area. This can make the situation of murder more tense as it is inevitable that the suspects will start wondering whether the people they work alongside day in day out are actually in fact killers. Francis Wheatley Winn (Vice-President of St Thomas’ College Oxford) in An Oxford Tragedy, finds this particularly challenging as he is close to a number of the suspects and therefore finds the notion they could be involved in the goings on at the college an abhorrence. The strain of wondering what those around you are really like can also be felt in Gaudy Night, despite there being no murder. Moreover, as the crimes that do occur are assumed to be typical of a spiteful unmarried women, the situation adds further stress by its potential to imperil and undermine the very ethos of the college itself. A further example of the academic milieu as an enclosed society is Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodgings (1937), where the suspects are quickly limited to a few due to the fact the college cannot be entered during the night and those inside can only get out if they possess one of the keys. You can also easily create eerie night time scenes when unwise characters decide to have a stroll or investigate something, especially if the academic institution in question has gothic architecture. There is also the potential for locked room crimes.
Reason No. 4: Portraying Life Experiences
Holiday mysteries can often give writers the opportunity to use their knowledge of a particular culture such as Todd Downing’s Mexico mysteries and other writers sometimes pick a specific milieu in order to reveal what life is like within it, such as Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise (1933) which shows life inside an advertising agency. The same can be said for detective fiction writers who adopt an academic milieu for their stories and again Sayer’s Gaudy Night is a well-known example of this and in fact is one of the reasons why some people don’t like the book: namely her focus on depicting college life for women for some readers detracts from the mystery plot. Furthermore, ‘some detective fiction set in the academic world also focuses on students and the pressures that they experience’ (Herbert and Kramer, 1999: 3) and both Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes (1946) and Simon Nash’s Dead of a Counterplot (1985) look at the difficulties university and college students can have and the academic and social demands which can be placed on them.
Reason No. 5: Natural Sleuths
I think one of the key reasons why writers may choose to make their amateur sleuth an academic is that they can be convincingly shown to be capable of detective work as ‘the reasoning processes that facilitate productive academic research closely parallel the reasoning processes necessary for successful detection’ (Kramer, 1999: 4). Moreover, writers can construct cases where the academic’s area of expertise can be used to solve the case, as it can help them notice certain clues in the first place and interpret them correctly or the academic can make parallels between their specialist knowledge, which could be literature or history for example, and the case at hand in terms of the murder method or in understanding the victims, suspects or killer. This latter purpose reminded me of Miss Marple and her specialist knowledge e.g. human life in St Mary Mede and how she applies this to murder cases beyond her village. There are quite a number of detective novels which embody this purpose such as those by Clyde B. Clason who created the character of Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough, Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries, The Cambridge Murders (1945) by Glyn Daniel which features Sir Richard Cherrington (academic and archaeologist) and Dermot Morrah’s The Mummy Case Mystery (1933), where Professors Sargent and Considine investigate the peculiar goings on at Beaufort College, Oxford. Another example which intrigued me was Arthur B Reeve’s character Professor Craig Kennedy who first starred in The Poisoned Pen (1911) and he uses his knowledge of chemistry and science in order to create crime fighting gadgets which he uses to solve cases.
Reason No. 6: Opportunities for Satire
Another prominent reason writers have sometimes used academic sleuths in their stories is that they are ‘an appealing topic for satire’ and other types of comedy. Kramer (1999) suggests this is because they are often ‘ego centric as well as intellectually arrogant’ (Kramer, 1999: 5) and in some cases this might be true. However, I think such sleuths can also be fun to satirise or joke around with due to the stereotype of the bumbling and eccentric professor who doesn’t operate in the same world or along the same lines as those around them. Crispin’s Gervase Fen is an immediate example which comes to mind and although it has been a while since I have read his exploits I don’t remember him being excessively ‘arrogant’ and I remember him more as hilariously maverick. Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat (1974) is an example of much more biting satire on academia and academics and Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp has done an interesting post on this novel touching on Barnard’s genuine dislike of all things academia. A satire of academia and academics which I quite enjoyed is W. Bolingbroke Johnson’s (penname for Morris Bishop) The Widening Stain (1942) which is based on Bishops’ experiences of working at Cornell University.
Auden, W. H. (1948). The Guilty Vicarage. Available: http://harpers.org/archive/1948/05/the-guilty-vicarage/. Last accessed 07/06/2016.
Herbert, R. and John E. Kramer. (1999). Academic Milieu. In: Herbert, R. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 3-4.
Kramer, J. E. (1999). Academic Sleuth. In: Herbert, R. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 4-5.