Recently, I decided to apply the subtitle an academic murder mystery to my current work-in-progress, Death in Shining Armor that features foul play and funny business at a Renaissance fair and beyond. I’ve also decided to make it Book 1 in a series of an academic murder mysteries
Almost immediately I ran into the sort of huh? reflex to the term academic mystery.
For instance, one member of my writers’ support said, “Well, that’s literary then.” Maybe she was thinking of the common place association of the term academic with pedantry.
So I find it necessary to define the term academic mystery and clear up misconceptions.
Fairly obviously, the academic mystery novel is set on a college or university campus at least in part. And it’s been around for a while. For example, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, her female detective goes undercover at her Alma Mater to discover who’s writing poisoned pen letters. Several of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries would qualify as well with their Cambridge settings.
A quick search for the genre on Amazon results in my finding ten academic mystery series and several other individual books that take place at least in part on college or university campuses.
Perhaps the most familiar example of academic mysteries around today are the Professor T television series now showing on PBS. Though not based on books, this show rather abounds in the clichés of the sub-genre: a university setting complete with a classroom; the brilliant yet eccentric professor/detective; his cheeky, comic relief administrative assistant; the bumbling administrator; and the brilliant, stand-out (former) student whom he mentors.
None of these things really explains what drew me to the sub-sub-genre. The story of my life does.
In high school, I was doomed to the back row of most of my classes because my maiden name started with W. And mostly I was quiet, kept my mouth shut, got ignored, made A’s, graduated third in my class, and didn’t get any awards except maybe for a citizenship award.
But my 18th birthday on September 11 (I’m not telling you the year), I registered at Marshall University in my home town of Huntington, WV. And I loved it from the get-go.
I blossomed there. When I graduated at the top of my class with three hours of B out of the 142 I took, I got many awards including copies of Shakespeare’s Love Poems and Sonnets and the Webster’s Third Edition so heavy that it made the heels of my shoes sink into the dirt when I took it. I also got my name as the top of my class inscribed way up high near the ceiling in the frieze in the front hall of old Main, an experience I share with the protagonist of Death in Shining Armor.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Why did I love college?
For one thing, in most classes I got to sit where I wanted to, often on the first row where I could answer the professor’s questions. For instance, in the English history class I took my freshman year, I identified the professor’s quotation from Robert Browning’s play Pippa Passes, the one that ends “God’s in his heaven/All’s right with the world.” (Most students were so intimidated by the professor’s reputation that they saved the class for their senior year.)
For another, I had more leeway in choosing the classes I took.
In college, I chose General Math instead of Algebra and the other high mathematics I would have no use for as an English major.
In high school, as a college prep student, I had to take Chemistry. I went through that class terrified that I’d accidentally blow the lab up. I hated Physics in my senior year of high school. So, at Marshall, I elected to take natural sciences. I successfully persuaded my lab partner to dissect the frog in Botany. And I loved Geology. And again, I caught the attention of the professor. In my Geology Lab, when the professor threw a rock at the class, my friend in the front row ducked. But sitting in the second row, I reached out, caught the rock and correctly identified it as pumice.
My freshman year I also had a paralyzing crush on my advisor, a handsome man with silver hair. But eventually I got over it. And in my sophomore year, at age nineteen, I got my first pair of contact lenses and my first car. Also, I made my first adult decision: to become a college professor when I grew up.
And so, I did (though it wasn’t always a straight forward process.) I went to the University of Colorado for my master’s. I got my doctorate from Ohio State. I taught literature and writing at the college level for thirty-five years. Also, along the way, I worked in two registrar’s offices and for a brief while in the acquisitions department of the library at Marshall.
So, I know academia extremely well. And it felt very natural to place the protagonist of Death in Shining Armor with a day job in a college registrar’s office and to give her the same ambition as I had, to make a career for herself in that world.
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Death in Shining Armor, an academic murder mystery, is now available for you to order in advance for the special price of only $2.99 from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CH7DXGPC