Murder Most Academic: Mysteries Set in Oxford, Cambridge & New York

Sep 14, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

Check out the bounty of plots, characters and motives university life offers a writer of mysteries. Its heightened atmosphere is a microcosm peopled with heroes, forces of nature, demons, supplicants willing and unwilling, sorcerers and bean counters. It is an elite country which lauds, yet persecutes its citizens. To the initiated, the period of initiation never seems to end, evidenced by the necessity of publishing and taking on the administrative duty of turf protection.

As you read, think Divine Comedy and see yourself as Dante Alighieri led by Virgil into the circles of Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven. Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, Jill Paton Walsh’s The Bad Quarto, and Amanda Cross’s The Players Come Again provide all-access passes to university life. You are in excellent hands with Colin Dexter who takes you to Oxford University and its environs with CI Morse of the Thames Valley Police as your irascible, brilliant guide.

Jill Paton Walsh’s Imogen Quy, rhyming with why, may be peripheral to the inner workings of Cambridge University per se, but as College Nurse and fellow at St. Agatha’s college, she is party to what happens in the Senior Common Room as well as to the triumphs and tragedies of undergraduates. Kate Fansler takes a year’s sabbatical from NYU when she is approached to edit the newly discovered papers belonging to the wife of a literary icon, and finds herself drawn into the hazardous world of literary biography in Amanda Cross’s The Players Come Again. These three protagonists serve as unique guides to their worlds and, like Virgil, they can be trusted.

The Daughters of Cain finds Chief Inspector Morse nearing the end of his career on the force. Both he and Chief Superintendent Strange have survived countless battles with the system, the more patient Strange ensconced in administration– all the better equipped to protect Morse– while he does the job. DS Lewis, Morse’s Watson, is still at his side paying for drinks and serving as the perfect foil to Morse’s brilliance and blindness. The novel begins with the murder of an Oxford don mired in the world of prostitution. As always, Dexter involves the reader in multiple plots and clues which prove relevant to the primary incidence of violence. How a high school teacher, a juvenile delinquent and a cleaning lady figure into the murdered don’s life will surprise the reader. It did me!

Cambridge nurse Imogen Quy, “soft as butter, sharp as needles,” becomes immersed in the ups and downs of the university’s dramatic society, thanks to her undergraduate boarder’s involvement in their production of the bad quarto of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In order to solve its financial woes, the society has agreed to “star” a wealthy, non-actor university student in the title role in return for his contribution of a large sum of money. The benefactor proves to have quite an ulterior motive in participating in the production; it harks back to an unpleasant incident in the college’s past, so the benefactor uses the play to make the past public once more to see justice done. Quy’s clear-eyed, disciplined analysis of the problems besetting the production and the guilt or innocence of student and faculty alike makes for good reading.

Literary lion and rival of James Joyce, Emanuel Foxx may be long dead, but his novel Ariadne lives on, as does his wife and muse, Gabrielle. Discovering the existence of Gabrielle’s papers prompts their would-be publisher to tempt Professor Kate Fansler into writing Gabrielle Foxx’s biography. He tempts her further with yet another hitherto unseen item pertaining to life among the Foxxes–a journal belonging to a circle intimate.

What follows is Fansler’s acquaintanceship with the survivors of that circle and her raveling up the threads of their lives, discovering the path out of the labyrinth of half-truths and lies built around their past. It is a story of fatal loves, contrived passions and the utilitarian use of sex among the literary best and brightest at the turn of the 20th century. Cross (the pen name of Carolyn Heilbron, noted feminist writer) is no stranger to the struggle for women’s equality in the mid and late 20th century, and in The Players Come Again, the struggle of creation among those who traditionally merely stand and wait.

Like all worlds of the imagination, the life of the University has suffered in the process of becoming a reality, and academics can no more escape the mire of ambition than members of any other profession. So what makes for good mysteries may be the bane of academia, but is also its fascination. A University is a contradiction in terms–beautiful minds locked in a death’s struggle to survive in material reality.

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.


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