Please join me in welcoming author Margot Kinberg as the special guest blogger here today at Thoughts in Progress.
Margot is not only a talented author, but a fellow blogger. Her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...., is always informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking. If you haven’t stop by, be sure to do so. You’ll enjoy the visit and make it a regular stop.
Margot latest release is B VERT FLAT. Since her protagonist has a connect to campus life, she joins us today to discuss campuses and murder.
Thanks so much, Mason, for hosting me! I’m excited to be here. I’m blogging today about campuses partly because I love college campuses. Very often, they’re worlds unto themselves. Even in towns that are known as “college towns,” where the life of the town seems to revolve around the campus, the campus itself is still what you might call a world apart. In a way, that makes a lot of sense.
After all, colleges and universities are unique social communities. They have their own social structure and hierarchy, many have their own places to eat and shop, and very often, they have their own security/police. Many college and university campuses are also home to a rich diversity of people with all sorts of histories, and all sorts of personal issues, and all sorts of different personalities. Many campuses are beautiful places with lots of history. Even newer campuses are often beautiful, and there’s often a sort of mystique about a college campus. With all of that beauty and mystique, history and groups of disparate people, it’s no wonder that the college campus is the setting for so much crime fiction. That’s part of the reason I’ve chosen the college campus as the setting for my Joel Williams mysteries. I’m in good company, too.
Lots of famous college campuses have become, you might say, characters in crime fiction novels. One of the most famous is the U.K.’s Oxford University, which poet Mathew Arnold referred to as “dreaming spires.” That beautiful campus features heavily in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels. Morse visits campus frequently and gets to know several of the dons and other campus faculty and staff members, as well as several students. What’s particularly interesting about the Morse novels is that they contrast the world of the campus with the world of the surrounding town of Oxford. Traditionally, there’s a disconnect, sometimes even an animosity, between people who live and work on campus and people who live and work in the town. That “town/gown” conflict is a part of many of the Morse novels, especially when he looks into the private lives of the some of the university people he investigates.
Oxford is also the setting for many of Veronica Stallwood’s Kate Ivory mysteries. Kate is a very popular historical novelist who lives and works in Oxford. Since she’s an amateur sleuth, she isn’t assigned to investigate crimes. Rather, she’s drawn into them through her relationships with victims, suspects, etc. For instance, in Oxford Exit, Kate’s friend and former lover, Andrew Grove, is on the security committee for the Bodleian Library. He’s concerned about a series of thefts from the library, and thinks that a computer hacker has been tampering with the records to cover up a series of thefts of rare materials. Andrew offers Kate the job of tracking the thief, and she agrees, since the fee will help her make ends meet while she finishes her current manuscript. As Kate’s working to solve the riddle of the thefts, she finds that the disturbed writing of a student in her friend Emma’s writing class begins to mirror Kate’s search for the truth about the thefts. More than that, the writing suggests a connection between these thefts and the unexplained death of a librarian a year earlier. In this novel, we get a real feel for Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library.
We also get a look at Oxford’s campuses and traditions in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, in which Harriet Vane, an alumna of Shrewsbury College, Oxford, returns to her alma mater for its Gaudy Dinner and festivities. A few months later, she receives a letter from the Warden of Shrewsbury, asking her to investigate a series of disturbing events at the college. Vane’s reluctant to do so, but eventually agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury, using the “cover” of doing research for a book. While she’s there, she and (later) Lord Peter Wimsey, find out who’s behind some threatening anonymous letters, vandalism, and other frightening occurrences.
Pamela Thomas-Graham’s Ivy League series highlights some of the U.S.’s more famous college campuses. In A Darker Shade of Crimson, Harvard economics professor Nikki Chase discovers the murderer of her friend, Rosezella “Ella” Maynette Fisher, Harvard’s new Dean of Students. In this novel, we get a sense of the Harvard campus, and certainly of Harvard history. The same thing happens in Blue Blood, in which Chase investigates murder at Yale University. In that novel, Gary Fox, a Yale Dean and a friend of Chase’s, calls her in a panic when his wife, Amanda, is found brutally stabbed in the streets of New Haven. Because of his recent (and public) disputes with his wife, Fox himself becomes a suspect in her murder, and Chase resolves to clear his name. Here, we not only get a sense of the beautiful Yale campus, but also of the “town/gown” relationship with New Haven itself. And then there’s Orange Crushed, in which Chase visits Princeton University to attend a conference and to visit her brother, Erik. While she’s there, she also visits her mentor, Professor Earl Stokes, who’s head of the African-American Studies Department. Stokes has all but decided to accept a very attractive offer from Harvard, but has decided to stay at Princeton until the department’s new building has been completed. One night, the new building goes up in flames and Stokes himself is killed. When Chase finds out what’s happened, she resolves to discover who killed her mentor and destroyed the new building.
In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals, we get a sense of the campus of the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. That’s the story of the death of Harald Guntlieb, a young German who was studying history, in particular, witchcraft and mysticism. One day, Trygvvi, who’s the head caretaker at the university, finds Gunnar Gestvik, head of the history department, in a desperate and frantic state. It seems that Gunnar opened the door to the building’s printer alcove, only to have Guntlieb’s brutally-murdered body fall on him. Immediately, the police are called, and before long, Guntlieb’s former friend is in custody for his murder, but Guntlieb’s family doesn’t believe he’s guilty. They contact attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, asking her to investigate the case. To assist Thóra in her search for the truth, the Guntlieb family also sends their own representative, Matthew Reich. Together, the two of them begin to search for answers. Along the way, we get an “inside look” at the university campus. We get a perspective on how the students live, how the faculty members interact with students and staff and, of course, on the campus itself.
University and college campuses have changed quite a lot in the last decades. That’s what makes it also interesting to get a look at campuses from earlier times. One of the most eventful eras on campuses was the era of student activism during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. We get a sense of that in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler. That’s the story of Hewes College Classics professor Arnold Weschler. One day, he’s called mysteriously into the office of college president Wintrhop Dohrn. Dohrn’s concerned about a radical student group that’s been protesting and creating unrest on campus. He believes that Weschler’s estranged brother, David, is one of the leaders of the group, and wants Weschler to intervene with his brother and get the group to stop its activities. Weschler’s reluctant, but agrees for the sake of his career. He contacts his brother and slowly gets to know the student group. Then, Dohrn’s grand-daughter is kidnapped. Next, a bomb goes off at the president’s home, destroying it and killing the president. Someone in the student group has gone too far, and Weschler takes on the task of finding out who’s responsible for these tragedies. In this novel, we get to see much of the Hewes College campus, and we get a look at the interactions among the various groups on campus (faculty, administrators, etc...). Admittedly, it’s a look from a by-gone time, but it’s an interesting historical “snapshot.”
My own Joel Williams novels are set on the campus of fictional Tilton University in rural Pennsylvania. I chose a small college town and campus as the setting for these novels because campuses are often beautiful, outwardly peaceful, and often full of secrets. Little wonder they make such an effective setting for a mystery!! Do you like campuses as much as I do? Which “campus mysteries” have you enjoyed?
Thanks again, Mason, for your hospitality!
Margot, thanks to you for guest blogging here today. Usually when one thinks of campus life, students learning and having a good time comes to mind. You’ve given us a different outlook and how deadly campus life can be.
Here’s the synopsis of the B VERY FLAT:
Is anyone really safe? Not necessarily. At nineteen years old, Serena Brinkman, an undergraduate violin major at Tilton University, seems to have a very secure future; she's got good looks, money, people who love her, and rare musical talent. She's also got a coveted Amati violin, a musical rival, friends whose secrets she knows, and an obsessed fan.
Serena's dreams are shattered when she suddenly dies on the night of a major music competition. Serena's partner, sure that her death was not an accident, asks for help from Dr. Joel Williams of Tilton's Department of Criminal Justice.
Williams, a former detective, becomes convinced that Serena was murdered, when he learns how unsafe her world really was. As he works with the Tilton Police Department to uncover the truth, Williams finds that Serena's looks, money, and talent, far from securing her future, made her a target