Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Academic Top Tens Plus an Academic Overview

School may be getting out for the summer, but the Tuesday Night Bloggers are donning their academic robes and enrolling in a month of sinister summer school. Throughout the month of June our group of Golden Age Detective aficionados will be taking our examinations and writing papers on the dastardly deeds of academe. Academic mysteries are one of my favorite sub-genres of the field and so I will be collecting the papers here at the Block. If you'd like to join us as we wrap up a month of academic mysteries, please stop by for group discussion and I'll add your posts to the list. We tend to focus on the Golden Age of crime fiction--generally accepted as published between the World Wars, but everyone seems to have a slightly different definition and we're pretty flexible. Essays on more recent crime fiction will certainly not be ignored.

Up next in July--School will definitely be out for the summer and the Tuesday Night Bloggers will turn their attention to deadly potions with discussions of poisons in mystery fiction. We'll be meeting here at the Block again--so, hunt up your favorite cases of poisoning and join us for discussion!
This week's Star Pupils and their essays:
Moira at Clothes in Books: "An Academic Miscellany"
Kate Jackson at crossexaminingcrime: "The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin"
Bill at Mysteries & More from Saskatchewan: "Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald"
Helen at Your Freedom & Ours: "Elegies & Evening Classes"

For Review:  

As I've mentioned, one of my favorite mystery sub-genres 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 University.

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, Stuart Palmer's inquisitive Miss Hildegarde Withers, M.D. Lake's campus cop Peggy O'Neill, Simon Nash's scholar Adam Ludlow, E.X. Ferrar's retired botany professor Andrew Basnett, 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 Literary Murder by Batya Gur.

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 quiet, 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.

Batya Gur's Literary Murder is one of those chance encounters. I found this one in the bargain bin at Borders (long before it closed, sigh). I was hooked from the first line of the back cover blurb: A star poet at a Hebrew University is beaten to death in his office. It also made a first for me...an academic mystery set in Jerusalem. Ms. Gur's police detective Michael Ohayon is a college graduate, so he is able to move easily in the academic world. This mystery was a delight in many ways, not least because it came up with a new motive for murder (new to me, anyway).
Of course, there are also the less happy chance encounters, such as The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton. This one-star effort features the death of Dr. Hernan Castillo, an expert in Mayan history, and the investigation by graduate student Lara McClintoch. It sounded interesting when I read the cover blurb, but it just didn't live up to expectations. Mostly because I didn't buy McClintoch as an amateur detective (see link for full review). Another disappointment was Oxford Knot by Veronica Stallwood--a book with somewhat tenuous academic connections (the main character resides in Oxford and some of the series titles do take place in the academic setting), which probably contributed to the disappointment. Having read a previous installment that was more firmly tied to the university, I expected more of an academic tie-in. Now, if you look on Goodreads, you'll see that I'm in the minority with my rating. But, again, I just wasn't buying what the author was selling. Fortunately (for me), most of the books I pick up because the cover mentions Professor So-and-So or Whatsit University turn out to be pleasant reads at least and quite often true delights.

And, finally, here are a couple of Academic "Top Ten" round-ups. Please know that any "Top Ten" lists that I do are for that day only and are subject to change at any time. For those titles which come from an academic series, we'll take it as read that they are standing in for the series as a whole. Also, I've listed these in the order they occurred to me and not necessarily in strict ranking.

Top Ten Academic Mysteries

1. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
2. Bodies in a Bookshop by R. T. Campbell
3. Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross
4. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
5. Murder on the Blackboard by Stuart Plamer
6. Killed by Scandal by Simon Nash
7. Corpses at Indian Stones by Philip Wylie
8. Seven Suspects (aka Death at the President's Lodgings) by Michael Innes
9. Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin
10. The Shortest Way to Hades by Sarah Caudwell

Top Ten Academic Detectives

1. Hildegarde Withers
2. Gervase Fen
3. Miss Pym
4. Hilary Tamar
5. R. V. Davie
6. Adam Ludlow
7. Andrew Basnett
8. Carolus Deene
9. Theocritus Lucius Westborough
10. Kate Fansler & Peter Shandy (tie)


Kate said...

I have managed to read 5 of your Top 10 Academic Mysteries and for two of the authors I have read different books than those listed. Glad you love Gaudy Night and it is nice to find someone else who has read Batya Gur's Literary Murder. I also enjoyed reading it, as I like reading books from different cultures and countries.

Clothes In Books said...

Lovely roundup Bev, and I agree with you on so many that I must seek out the ones on your list that I've missed. And very much like the sound of Literary Murder.