Reflections on the Academic Mystery

“Professors of literature collect books the way a ship collects barnacles, without seeming effort.” — Amanda Cross

While I was toiling away in graduate school, trying to make sense of academia, I happened upon Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross. Initially, I didn’t know–but was happy to learn–that “Amanda Cross” was the pseudonym of Carolyn G. Heilbrun, an esteemed professor at Columbia University.

Oh, the wonderfulness. Death in a Tenured Position is focused on a prof with a quick wit and a knack for summoning the perfect literary quote (or withering remark) for every situation. Bliss!  I became addicted to the genre immediately.

So…what is an academic mystery?

Academic mystery* typically has at least one of the following:
• a campus setting: college, university, high school, or elementary school;
• professors, administrators, teachers, staff, or students who perform as sleuths;
• foregrounding of specific academic disciplines or topics; and/or
• commentary on elements of academic culture: teaching, research, tenure, funding, etc.

At the core, they are traditional mysteries where the campus stands in for the small village or society, though academic mysteries tend to provide a satirical rendering of educational hierarchies and foibles as well. They also often celebrate the ability to think through evidence and come to a likely conclusion through analytical means. When we consider that those are the very skills honed by many educational activities, the combination of “academic” and “mystery” seems inevitable!

Finding them takes work, though, as they are shelved as everything from “cozies” to “thrillers” (I’ve located 700+ so far). Some of my favorites include Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler series, Joanne Dobson’s Karen Pelletier series, Maggie Barbieri’s Murder 101 series, Gillian Roberts’s Amanda Pepper series, Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman series, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Robert Grudin’s Book: A Novel, and Lori Rader-Day’s The Black Hour.

As a pleasant side effect (or not), academic mysteries can invite us to remember our own school days…

*Those with a higher education setting have also been called “college mystery,” “university mystery,” “school mystery,” and “Oxford mystery” (if set in Oxford, naturally).


10 thoughts on “Reflections on the Academic Mystery”

  1. “Aren’t all scholars really detectives?” Oh yes. Not hunting killers and bodies, but I spent enough time in the library “hunting” information to second that statement! I think a college campus can be a great setting for a mystery. People think of them as so serene and lofty, but on the inside “a seething cauldron” indeed. 🙂


  2. I always thought I should write a murder mystery about one of the post-secondary institutions I’ve worked for, but even I have a hard time believing the kinds of things that actually go on there! 🙂


  3. What a wonderful blog. And you’ve added to my reading list, both a good and bad thing for an English professor.

    My first academic mystery was Valerie Miner’s Murder in the English Department. I also studied fiction writing with her at “Women’s Voices,” a summer program at UC-Santa Cruz. We had some great faculty, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, and Judy Grahn to name a few more.

    Hooray for the academic mystery.


  4. Oh dear, my TBR stack is growing again.

    Your post reminds me of the academic mystery I considered writing when graduate school and I parted our sorry ways–perhaps I shall revisit that!


  5. Sue, yes please! I would love to read it!

    Diane, yes! Good recommendation. I loved that the main character had a pop-star past…am I remembering correctly that there were snippets of her songs in there? 🙂


  6. Love, love, love this. I wrote many, many crime fiction stories in my head during graduate school–it was great stress relief! 😉 I can’t believe I’ve missed so many academic mysteries! The TBR pile is definitely growing. . .I wonder if we could get a bulk rate on shipping since we all seem to be adding to our collection?!? Great post!


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