“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 over 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).