Monday, April 8, 2013

Alphabet Crime: Letter A

Here we are kicking off another year of the The Alphabet in Crime Fiction hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  Each week she expects participants to produce a post featuring a mystery/crime novel, mystery novelist, or crime fiction topic related to that week's letter.  In the past I have pretty much stuck to titles or authors, but this year I'm going to try and produce posts on various crime and mystery topics. 

There are various sub-genres of this field that we all love--everything from Vintage/Golden Age mysteries to recently written stories with historical settings; suspense thrillers to serial killers; police procedurals to comfortable cozies. One of my more recent favorites is the Academic Mystery. Now, my definition may not precisely coincide with a more accepted or expected definition. For my purposes an academic mystery must have one or more of the following: a professor or teacher acting as the primary (amateur) detective; a professor or teacher as the victim, culprit or essential main character; and/or a school or university setting. My love for this sort of mystery has loaded my shelves with all sorts of unlikely looking specimens. Sometimes I wind up with a real gem and sometimes I shake my head over what I have bought just because the back cover mentions Professor So-and-So or Whatsit Univeristy.

And within the sub-genre of academic mystery there is everything from the series with a university setting to stand-alone novels that have professors sprinkled in the mix. Some of my favorite academic series are Amanda Cross' series starring Kate Fansler, M. D. Lake's campus cop Peggy O'Neill, Edmund Crispin's eccentric Oxford don Gervase Fen, and Charlotte MacLeod's very funny Peter Shandy series. Kate Fansler is a witty, smart, feminist professor who finds herself mixed up in mysteries that often give her creator Amanda Cross (Carolyn Heilbrun, a professor herself) a chance to air her own views on women in the academy. Never preachy, the stories bring to life what it was like for women in the 1960s (and beyond) to make their way in a male-dominated world. This series also highlights Kate's relationship with her husband, Reed. It is one of those true partnerships that one would hope all couples aspire to. Campus cop Peggy O'Neill is more of a blue collar, hardworking policewoman trying to make her way through the mysteries of the ivory tower. She also finds herself in the middle between the academics and the city police. The tension of Peggy's position makes for an interesting story line. Gervase Fen is an eccentric and sometimes absent-minded Oxford don whose adventures are complex and fantastic with sometimes unbelievable solutions, but always fun and funny. I read the Crispin novels for pure enjoyment. The same is true of the Peter Shandy series. These mysteries are not for the who-dunnit fans who must have every I dotted and every T crossed; they are for students of life who want to see their professors as the human and sometimes humorous people they are.

My all-time favorite stand-alone novel is Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night. Focused on a poison pen loose in a women's college, there is no murder in this one, but it is a story of human emotion and what crimes can be done to love and in the name of love. I would probably credit my interest in academic crime to this story of Lord Peter Wimsey and his lady-love, Harriet Vane. That and the fact that I work for a university. It is very interesting to me to read mysteries with an academic setting and see how many types I recognize. There are often characters that read exactly like professors in my own English Department. Other very good stand-alone academic mysteries include Seven Suspects (aka Death at the President's Lodge) and The Open House--both by Michael Innes and Corpses at Indian Stones by Philip Wylie.

Although the two Innes books share the same detective, Inspector, later Sir, John Appleby, there is no other connection between the two. In Seven Suspects, Inspector Appleby is on the grounds of St. Anthony's College and he must confront academic intrigues, scholarly scandals and one clever killer. And it is not a nice quite, intellectual murder. It is a vulgar and ungentlemanly crime with bones scattered about the room, a grotesque drawing of grinning death's-heads scrawled on the wall, and President Umpleby's head wrapped up in an academic robe. Then in The Open House Sir John's car breaks down on a deserted road. He wanders up a drive in search of assistance. What he finds at the end of the drive is a large house with all the lights blazing merrily away. Candles are lit, champagne is on ice, and dinner is waiting in the dining room. But there is no one to be found to answer his calls for help. In this adventure he faces an absent-minded professor, a mysterious lady in white, South American conspirators, several murders and their victims.

Philip Wylie's book, Corpses at Indian Stones, is a more recent read.  A gift from my good friend John over at Pretty Sinister Books, I just finished this one in February.  This delightful novel starring Agamemnon ("Aggie") Telemachus Plum--professor of anthropology, archaeologist, and hobbyist in vertebrate paleontology....and crack amateur detective. Aggie takes on the mystery of who killed Jim Calder--a man with plenty of enemies--up at Indian Stones, a summer resort that his aunt visits annually.  There's a lot to like in this one, including a rather nifty locked room mystery.
On the docket for this year's reading, are two more academic mysteries:
 Murder at Cambridge by Q. Patrick and Darkness at Pemberley by T. H. White. Both of these are vintage mysteries written in the 1930s and I look forward to seeing how Patrick and White incorporate the academic life into their novels.


TracyK said...

Bev, this is an absolutely fabulous post about academic mysteries. I will come back and refer to it when I want to pursue more of those.

I definitely want to read Seven Suspects for vintage mystery challenge, and hope I can find that edition. (I already have the book ... I think under the other title. Not sure.)

Bill Selnes said...

Bev: Well done!

I would not worry about your criteria. I believe every blogger is entitled to set their own criteria.

Let me recommend the Joanne Kilbourn series by Gail Bowen. Joanne is a professor of English at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.

Bev Hankins said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Bill! Another series to add to my ever-growing TBR list. :-)

srivalli said...

I love academic mysteries too! But haven't read any from your recommendations except Gaudy Night. Will look for the other books.

Unknown said...

I love your choice for A, both as an academic and as the author of an academic mystery. The campus is a great place to find a diverse number of people, and when different people come together, there are all sorts of reasons for murder. I will have to check out most of these books to see what I can learn from them.