The first thing that needs to be said is THE MIRROR DANCE is not an academic mystery. It’s a Punch and Judy publishing stage-door academic mystery (and if it’s not number one on Amazon’s chart of them I’ll have done something very wrong).
I always knew the action would move from Doig’s, the publishers of the wholesome women’s magazine The Rosy Cheek and sister magazine for girls The Freckle, to the world of the travelling puppet show, to the backstage kingdom of variety theatres, but it was a surprise when the University of St Andrews put in an appearance in the first draft.
It was only me amusing myself that made it happen. Did you know that the puppeteer of a Punch and Judy show is called the Professor? Well, I thought it would be funny if he had a brother who was an actual professor, and even funnier if they each thought the other one was the black sheep of the family.
I shouldn’t be too surprised that academia muscled into my story: as a writer, I do love a school (DANDY GILVER AND A BOTHERSOME NUMBER OF CORPSES) and I do love a college (COME TO HARM). As a reader, even more so. Here then is my top five, completely personal – not trying to start something – list of favourite crime novels with an academic background. (Number one will not amaze you.)
But before I plunge in, I need to note some honourable mentions. When Kris suggested this topic I wondered if I would be able to come up with five titles I genuinely loved. Three minutes later I had eight. Then I remembered another one. Then I stopped before it got out of hand. So it’s entirely possible that I have forgotten some gems. That’s what comment sections are for.
Honourable mentions: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I enjoyed but have never re-read; An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James, which I’m sure I remember enjoying but it was a long time ago; Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging, which is a book I do love but I love so many others of Innes’ even more that this one didn’t make the cut; and Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, which I think I enjoyed a lot but didn’t put in my top five because I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it’s the telly programme I’m fond of. Telly Morse took over from Book Morse for me quite early on.
So that’s that done. Here in no particular order except for number one are my tippy-top favourites. (I’ve gone for the first in the series where applicable.)
5. The Semester of Discontent, by Cynthia Kuhn
This is almost too good. I was an academic a long time ago (a very bad and very unhappy one) and Cynthia’s evocation of college politics only just missed giving me flashbacks. It’s a real insider look at life in an English department. With one more murder than happened in mine while I was there. Many fewer than were dreamed of, mind you. Prof Lila Martin – put-upon, hapless, intrepid, indefatigable – has four subsequent cases after this debut and the series goes from strength to strength.
4. Murder in G Major, by Alexia Gordon
Set in a boys’ school in Ireland, where the protagonist works as a music director, Alexia’s series opener is as exuberant as an Irish jig, with a sly sense of humour, a big heart, a lot of whisky and a ghost. The fish-out-of-water theme is always irresistible to me – I’ve written it a time or two myself – and there’s something absolutely life-affirming about an author taking everything she loves and turning it into a cozy world. In a later book there’s a rose competition because . . . Alexia loves roses. That way of deciding what to write might be a problem with insufficient talent to back it up, but here it merely means that the joy shines through.
3. Brooklyn Bones by Triss Stein
A slight stretch (but only slight) in that mature PhD student Erica Donato works not in a university but in a museum, because she is a historian and her research topic is the physical history of her native and beloved Brooklyn. From graves to architecture to war stories to organised crime, everywhere Triss sends her heroine turns up delicious nuggets of the borough’s human history and wakens more than a few sleeping dogs. If you love when a sleuth opens a locked box, or unties the ribbon on an old photograph album, or settles down to run through a year of ancient newspapers, as much as I do – and I do! – you will want to bathe in the Brooklyn series.
2 and a half did you see what I did? The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths
This is the book where we first meet Dr Ruth Galloway of the University of North Norfolk. She’s an academic archaeologist called in to help the local police when they find the bones of a child buried in the coastal marshland, near Ruth’s own isolated cottage. The series is thirteen books deep now, but here in the debut the characters we will grow to love are all there, just beginning to twine together in the relationships that still have me panting for the next installment. Learning a bit about archeology along the way is a pleasure too, when the touch is this light.
2. The Black Hour, by Lori Rader-Day.
This one isn’t a series entry, but it was Lori’s debut in mystery fiction. I still remember finding that hard to believe when I read it. Its premise felt timely then and still does: a sociology professor who researches violence is shot by a student and must return to work, traumatised, judged and still mystified about his motive – which he took to his grave. Another student of Dr Emmett’s is hoping to study the attack from a scholarly perspective, while Amelia herself is only trying to get through the days without succumbing to PTSD. I loved it for the light it shone on the meaning of violence for different genders, but that theme is wrapped up in a belter of a pacy plot too.
- Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L Sayers.
Because of course it is. What else except Sayers’ love letter to her Oxford days? There’s a sneaky poison-pen plot, a dollop of nasty psychological ill-health that pre-figures Ruth Rendell, a scorching satirical account of the problematic politics of the time (DLS is on sound ground for once here. She had her faults but being beguiled by eugenics wasn’t one of them.), a gentle satirical look at academic women living in a community, satisfying cameos of Bunter and Lord St. George, a wry take on the ways of undergraduates (who don’t seem to have changed much) and, for me, the most romantic falling-in-love scene ever written. Nothing happens and the world is changed forever. Sigh. I might need to go and read that bit again.
Right then. Those are my favourites and that is why. Now, what have I missed? I’m ready to spend the day smacking myself in the head and blushing.
From the Booking Desk:
Share your favorite Academic Mysteries with us in the comments on the various Facebook posts of this wonderful contribution from Catriona. Then be sure to pick up THE MIRROR DANCE at your favorite bookstore.
National-bestselling and multi-award-winning author, Catriona McPherson (she/her), was born in Scotland and lived there until immigrating to the US in 2010.
She writes historical detective stories set in the old country in the 1930s, featuring gently-born lady sleuth, Dandy Gilver. Book 15, THE MIRROR DANCE, is coming in November. After eight years in the new country, she kicked off the comic Last Ditch Motel series, which takes a wry but affectionate look at California life from the POV of a displaced Scot (where do we get our ideas, eh?). Book 4, SCOT MIST, is coming in January. She also writes a strand of contemporary psychological thrillers. The latest of these is A GINGERBREAD HOUSE, which Kirkus called “a disturbing tale of madness and fortitude”.
Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA, Society of Authors, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime. www.catrionamcpherson.com