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The Scholar Sleuth:
Or, Death in a Literary Context
If I wanted to write realistic crime fiction about college life, I could do so simply based on occurrences during my own years at a New York City university. A student goes out drinking and disappears, precipitating a six-week city-wide search before his body surfaces in the East River. A student stabs and kills an Albanian "townie" in a squabble at the gates of the university, precipitating panicked rumors that hordes of Albanian thugs bent on revenge are about to storm the campus. A student is raped at 3 a.m. by a teenage boy she befriended while returning home alone from a night in a bar. A professor commits suicide by jumping off the roof of a campus building. And that's just one school. Then there's the Columbia University Internet sexual assault case, the infamous Brown University prostitution ring, and don't forget the Unabomber. The college campus in the real world is not a crime-free zone, as horrifically evidenced by the recent killings of two professors at Dartmouth college. Brutal, sordid, tragic, and cruel, the Dartmouth murders strikingly reflect the gap—the chasm, really—between the literary conventions of the traditional academic mystery novel and such crime as it occurs in real life.
No doubt true-crime books will be written about the personal and social devastation caused by homicide at an elite and seemingly bucolic campus, but that type of real-life horror is not what inspires the academic mystery novelists who over the course of the past centuryhave developed a genre that tends more to comedy of manners than to social realism. Practitioners of academic mystery fiction don't strive for mimesis—the precise semblance of gritty reality—or for the total escapism of kiss-kiss bang-bang shoot-'em-up thrillers, but for something more traditional, intellectual, and satiric. When I sit down and dip my own pen in the bloody ink of detective fiction, I look to the conventions of the British Golden-Age mystery novel, with its cool brainy sleuth and its satiric eye on the manners, passions, and foibles of human beings living in intimate proximity to each other in small communities. In the democratic United States of America the college campus is about as close as you can come in locale to the conditions that engendered the traditional English village mystery with its focus on longstanding confined communities, carefully cultivated manners, and an impervious class system—all of which provide the classic fodder for the type of high comedy and caricature to which modern academic life so invitingly lends itself.
* * *
The academic mystery novel, according to the Internet's MacGuffin Guide to Mystery Fiction, consists of tales where "murder happens on campus or, if off campus, the plot involves an academic personality using academic skills, knowledge, and attitude to solve the case." These two elements—the academic setting and characters—are what differentiate the academic mystery from other traditional mystery novels, and offer it, when the magic happens, its particular comic flair and occasional intellectual resonance. "Murder happens on campus," guaranteeing a compelling setting, often drenched in nostalgia for the reader. The protagonist is "an academic personality using academic skills" to grapple with an intellectual puzzle, leading to the solution of a baffling murder.
Over the years I've read a multitude of mysteries set on college campuses. Some of these, including Amanda Cross's The James Joyce Murders (1967), Robert B. Parker's The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), and Robert Barnard's The Missing Brontë (1983), gripped my imagination powerfully. Then I read A. S. Byatt's literary novel Possession (1990), with its story of nineteenth-century love letters and its passionate and indefatigable scholarly researchers, and I was hooked. During the year of exquisite anguish when I was coming up for tenure, I began Quieter than Sleep (1997), the first in my Professor Karen Pelletier series of academic mystery novels, and found myself propelled from the halls of the Ivory Tower into the mean streets of the murder mystery business.
The academic mystery as a literary genre seems to have sprung to life in the 1920's, the same historical moment, interestingly enough, that saw the rise of the hard-boiled detective in American fiction. Among the first campus mysteries listed by the MacGuffin Guide are The Oxford Murders by Adam Broome and Streaked with Crimson by Charles Judson Dutton, both published in 1929. These were followed by such felicitous titles as Murder in the Stacks by Marion Reed in 1934 and Timothy Fuller's Harvard Has a Homicide in 1944, titles emphasizing the campus setting. In these novels—or in any academic novel—we are dealing not with the reality of a college campus (it would be too boring), but with fictions built around a powerful and compelling myth—the rarified world of "pure" knowledge, the community that revolves around the classroom as the earth revolves around the sun, where ideas and discourse reign supreme, and learning is valued for its own sake. This myth is double-edged and contradictory—no one place on earth could be either as idyllic or as hellish as the academe that appears in mystery novels.
On the one hand, the campus is idealized as Edenic. A look at the titles of some of my favorite academic mysteries suggests to me that the theme of loss (appropriate to Eden) is a prominent one in the genre: Barnard's Case of the Missing Brontë, Terence Faherty's The Lost Keats (1993), Jane Langton's Emily Dickinson is Dead (1984). Perhaps readers—and writers—of the academic mystery are mourning a loss of their own—the literary and intellectual challenges of their college years, as seen through a haze of nostalgia. In a world of materialistic hustle-bustle, we want to see—or want to remember, or want to imagine—the college campus as a refuge, a utopian community sheltered from the concerns of the larger society, where altruistic professors labor eagerly their entire adult lives for the sheer love of learning and very little material gain. A multitude of readers, myself included, love this myth. In some pure idealistic corner of our souls we yearn for such a community: a community where people are genuinely passionate about the life of the mind; a world somehow set apart from the rat race. In The Raven and the Nightingale, my professor-sleuth Karen Pelletier enters the Enfield College campus quad shortly after a heavy snow storm and is struck by the purity of the scene, "Boxy Victorian buildings ... sunk to their windows in feathery drifts and further softened by pillows of snow drowsing on roof, cornice, and ledge.... [E]verything was hushed: even the shouts of the student snowballers behind the dorms seemed muted. I was momentarily entranced; the pastoral perfection, the mythic Currier and Ives fantasy of an ideal time, place and purpose...."
* * *
Yet, there is a snake in Eden. As Karen knows, the Platonic ideal of the college campus has its negative side: "Backbiting, scheming, plagiarism, theft, even homicide. How could these horrors have contaminated the idyllic, almost sacral, scene now spread before me?" (154). The dark side of the mythic academic utopia, she finds, is an incestuous dystopia—a little town in which people know far too much about each other, gossip is rampant, learned squabbles abound, vicious behavior is masked by impeccable manners and sesquipedalian vocabularies, and absolute power is wielded with a velvet glove. As Karen learns, and anyone who has ever worked in an institution of higher learning knows, both of these myths—the idyllic vision of the high-minded community, and the dark-comic vision of the hot-bed of pettiness are true—simultaneously. Nothing about the college community—except the classroom—is sacred to Karen; she has a love-hate relationship with the academic world that allows her the detached perspective particularly useful to a detective. Yes, her scholarly expertise has rescued her from the chaos and poverty of her early life, but only at the cost of a new—and perhaps even nastier—kind of chaos.
On this dark side of the myth, the academic life offers a mystery novelist a volatile comic brew. What better place than the supposedly hyper-rational scholarly world to find a murderous clash between the oh-so disinterested life of the mind and the oh-so self-interested passions of the body and soul? In the heat of tensions engendered by obscure intellectual interests, seething professional ambitions, and titillating sexual possibilities, the most ludicrous conflicts occur. I recall—in real life—a professor (a full professor) who hauled off and slugged a graduate student in her office during a vicious argument over ... a dissertation topic. (As punishment, the professor was urged to accept early retirement. The graduate student, I assume, got a new, and saner, dissertation adviser—or a less controversial dissertation topic. Nobody was murdered.)
* * *
To tighten the screws on the tension of campus life, where else among American adults (except perhaps in the military) do you find a rigidly defined class structure—from its all-powerful deans to its lowly supplicants for tenure (and even lowlier adjuncts)—so closely approximating that of a medieval society of aristocrats and forelock-tugging serfs, without even a pretense of democratic equality? Such a climate of institutionalized privilege on the one hand and deprivation on the other, would seem to be deliberately designed to foster murderous histories of personal animosity and institutional resentment, all politely subsumed under the high-minded rubrics of learning and political correctness. This tight-knit, classbound setting lends itself irresistibly to the satiric comedy of manners in which the academic mystery novel luxuriates. And, at least in the genre conventions, it often leads to murder.
As with the classic Golden Age mystery, put a group of human beings in close proximity to each other under such heated circumstances—for semesters at a time—and one of them is bound to be knocked off. And it will, most likely, be funny. Murder. On. Campus: What is so titillating—so horrifying, yet so appealing—about that motif? Harvard Has a Homicide (1944). Death in a Tenured Position, by Amanda Cross (1981). Dead Men Don't Give Seminars, by Dorothy Sucher (1988). These titles highlight the paradox: In the idealized utopian community of privilege and Platonic endeavor that the myth of the academic world constructs, the mere notion of homicide is ludicrous, providing a sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, rupture between the Platonic ideal of pure disinterested learning and the sometimes homicidal reality of human needs and desires. Or, let's make it more explicit: When intelligent people, learned people, people who by all rights should be adhering closely to the laws of pure reason, when such people kill each other, it is all the more titillating to the reader, both to the in-the-know academic insider and to the incredulous outside observer.
* * *
And down the mean corridors of this bastion of pedantry and pomposity a sleuth must go who is not herself mean, who is neither pedantic nor pompous, but who serves as a guide to the intellectual life, a translator, and an investigator. She speaks the academic language and knows the intellectual territory. She has academic street-smarts—in the way Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe has urban street smarts. A professor-sleuth knows her way around campus. She has the discretionary time required by an investigator. She has credible reasons for "interrogating" students, faculty, and staff. She even has a built-in cover: preconceptions about the "absentmindedness" and general cluelessness of professors shield her from suspicion. But, most importantly, she has a scholar's intellectual passion, knowledge, and skills.
Solving an intellectual crime requires an insider's knowledge and a specialized way of thinking, as Inspector John Appleby realizes in Michael Innes's Death at the President's Lodging, when he deals with a particularly nasty campus homicide:
Mystery stories were popular in universities.... [he muses, and that leads him to wonder,] Why had Umbleby met his death in a story-book manner.... Umbleby had died amid circumstances of elaborate ingenuity. He had died in a literary context.... in a literary tradition deriving from all the progeny of Sherlock Holmes. Somewhere in the case ... there was a mind thinking in terms both of inference and of the macabre.... a mind, one might say, thinking in terms of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, come to think of it, was an intellectual fashion, and St. Anthony's was an intellectual place....
An intellectual place. That was, of course, a vital fact to remember when proceeding a step further.... Intelligence, after all, had its morbid manifestations.
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As Innes understands, "an intellectual place" requires an intellectual sleuth.
And here is where, at the same time as the academic mystery makes it all too easy to laugh at the crotchets of scholars, the genre also begins to show them some respect. Scholarly work, when done with integrity and dedication, is a rigorous and painstaking process. Scholars are, in their own particular fields, trained investigators and repositories of specialized knowledge. The nature of the scholar's work as an investigator provides a counterbalance of gravity to the high comedy of the academic novel. It offers credibility for a scholar-sleuth in a genre where the primary impulse is distinguishing fact from fiction, revealing the truth behind the commission of a crime from the fiction that has heretofore obscured that truth. It is this "literary" exegesis that makes the difference between the novel that is merely set on a college campus and the novel whose mystery (the intellectual puzzle of the murder) lends itself to the particular recondite knowledge of the academic mind, the inductive or deductive reasoning skills of the scholarly investigator, and/or the "iron butt" of the archival researcher.
* * *
Professor Karen Pelletier, the protagonist of my academic mystery series, is, like me, an English professor. She is, as all the promotional material for the series claims, an unlikely sleuth—as any professor might be. She is, also, an unlikely professor, born working class into the hardscrabble factory-town life of Lowell, Massachusetts, pregnant at eighteen, married at nineteen, by the age of 22 a single mother on her own with only a high school diploma as an academic credential. With her gritty working-class background, Karen is, it would seem, a far more likely protagonist for a hardboiled mystery series than for an academic series. But we do, after all, live in a meritocracy, and by her late thirties, through a daunting application of hard work, persistence, and sheer inborn intellect, Karen has managed to earn a Ph.D. in English and make a rewarding academic career for herself. And, in Quieter Than Sleep, during her first year at New England's posh Enfield College, still, of course, untenured, she stumbles across her first professorial corpse. Bringing her street-smart, "hard-boiled" attitude, to bear on the investigation, along with her skills as a scholar—in her case, as a literary historian—she solves the literary riddle behind this campus homicide, and thus commences her career as scholar-sleuth.
And many, if not most, scholar-sleuths are English professors. They are readers of life-as-text. Perhaps Karen Pelletier isn't so "unlikely" after all. Literary critics, as one of A. S. Byatt's characters tells us in Possession, are "natural detectives" (258). They have, after all, "narrative curiosity" (259). They are compelled to see how the story turns out, and why and how it turns out that way, and they have the training in textual studies—archival research, stylistic analysis, and thematic analysis—to find out. In The Raven and the Nightingale (1999), Karen, who is working closely with Lieutenant Piotrowski of the Massachusetts State Police, reluctantly draws upon her specialized skills as a problem solver:
"Piotrowski, just what the heck am I supposed to be doing? All I know about research methodology is this: First, identify the problem. Okay, here's the problem: Who killed Elliot Corbin? Then, break down the tasks. Okay, so I network friends and associates—which, as you can tell, makes me feel like a creep; I do scholarly research—with about a snowball's chance in hell of making any connections to the murder; I search Elliot's house and office—and find out dirty little secrets about people they've kept hidden for decades.... Then what's the third step? Interpret data and draw conclusions. So, the only real data I've come up with is that Jane was once married to Elliot, and now you leap to the conclusion that she killed him."
But, while Piotrowski knows that Karen can help him make his way through the labyrinth of academic culture, make connections with faculty and students, and peer into the mists of the past, he isn't quite persuaded by the neatness of her procedure:
"That's a real orderly methodology you've developed for yourself, Doctor, as far as it goes, but you've left out one real important factor."
"What's that, Lieutenant?"
"You've forgotten the wild card."
"Yeah. Irrational human need. You always got to factor in the possibility of something totally off the wall. Something that doesn't make any sense to anyone but the killer. Something the killer wants or needs so bad he's willing to risk everything for it, even his eternal soul."
Karen's scholarly research skills, literary-historical knowledge and ability to "read" the present and the past (and the past in the present) solve the historical conundrum that has led to Elliot Corbin's murder. "I know a little more about nineteenth-century America than your average street cop," she tells Piotrowski. And, of course, the past is a mystery. Artifacts and stories are the only witnesses we have, and their interpretation depends on an able interrogator. Thus the work of the scholar-sleuth parallels the detective's intellectual role in the puzzle-solving process. A trained intellect and an awesome fund of recondite knowledge render the professor/scholar credible as a sleuth—at least when death is so obliging as to occur in the "literary context" of the academic mystery novel.
* * *
In the academic mystery, readers can laugh at the obsequiousness of the tenure-tracked, the smugness of the tenured, the self-righteousness of the politically correct, and the pompousness of the pedantic. They can escape from mundane reality in the narrative drive of an intellectual criminal investigation. They can identify with an accomplished scholarly gumshoe, whose adventures are those of the mind, not the muscle. And, for extra credit, they may re-immerse themselves in the long-lost, rarified air of the college classroom and learn something new. This time there is no final exam.
Excerpted from AZ Murder Goes ... Professional by Barbara Peters. Copyright © 2002 by Poisoned Pen Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Preface Lee Child|
|The Scholar Sleuth: Or, Death in a Literary Context|
|Writing from My Life John Dunning||17|
|Not at Any Price Nicholas Kilmer||61|
|But What Do They Do For A Living? Thomas Perry||79|
|Writing with Ghosts Nancy Pickard||95|
|The Lawyer as Amateur Sleuth William G. Tapply||113|