In at the kill

What is it about crime and universities? As the film of The Oxford Murders premieres, Matthew Reisz probes a world of professor-sleuths, philosophical riddles and the academics who are hooked on them

April 17, 2008

A few academics have written detective fiction, more have appeared as characters and many are enthusiastic (if sometimes guilty) consumers. Beware! Murderers have struck in college cloisters or in the vaults beneath university libraries. And such novels often have implicit intellectual claims (or pretensions), with digressions on philosophy or philology, plots involving art forgery, missing manuscripts or lost Shakespeare plays.

A recent addition to the genre, Guillermo Martinez's The Oxford Murders (2005), features a serial killer leaving a series of symbolic clues, which a mathematician and logician struggle to decipher, well aware that many different patterns can lie behind the same short sequence. Reviewing it in The Guardian, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy commented on the "many similarities between cracking a crime and trying to prove a mathematical theorem". The book has now been made into a film, due to be released next week, starring John Hurt and Elijah Wood.

So what is it about academics and detective fiction? People the world over, after all, get their idea of British university (and particularly Oxbridge) life from printed or televised whodunnits.

The Irish historian and journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards, for example, is the author of 11 satirical detective novels, including the Cambridge-based Matricide at St Martha's (1994). When she first went to Cambridge, she has written, she found it "in many ways familiar from great mystery writers like Dorothy L. Sayers and Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin".

"There were many single fellows who had lived in college premises for decades, had little grasp of reality and could start major wars about such trivial issues as whether to replace the curtains in the senior common room."

Rumours went the rounds about "distinguished old men who had hated each other for sixty years grimacing at each other from either end of high table and telling anyone who would listen that Smith or Jones has falsified a footnote in 1937".

This image of Oxbridge colleges - as privileged, enclosed and seething with resentments - may be true, partly true or a foul libel, but one can see why it makes them an excellent setting for the traditional English whodunnit. The three writers Edwards mentions all come from the so-called golden age of English detective fiction, running from roughly the 1920s to the 1940s.

Michael Innes was the pen name of an Oxford English professor, J.I M. Stewart, who wrote detective stories a bit like mathematical puzzles, notable, according to one critic, for their "allusively elephantine wit". His first, Death at the President's Lodging (1936), takes place in a fictional Oxford college; another features a professor in an unnamed university who is unlucky enough to get killed by a meteorite dropped on his head from a tower.

Edmund Crispin's novels include The Moving Toyshop (1946), where poet Richard Cadogan sets off for Oxford, realises he has nowhere to stay but reassures himself that "he had only to climb over the wall of his college ... and sleep on a couch in somebody's sitting-room. Nobody would care; the owner of the sitting-room would be neither surprised nor annoyed".

Unfortunately, Cadogan stumbles upon a corpse in a deserted toyshop and gets struck over the head. When he returns the next day with the police, the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced by a grocer's. His only hope is to turn to his old friend, Gervase Fen, professor of English language and literature, who often comes up with exclamations such as "Oh, my dear paws". The two slowly unravel a dastardly plot, and end up chasing suspects through quadrangles, college chapels and cinemas, along river banks and eventually into a fairground.

The classic Oxford whodunnit, despite the lack of an actual murder, is Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night (1935). Her heroine, detective novelist Harriet Vane, returns for a reunion to her old college where she had been so happy, thinking it a "quiet place, where only intellectual achievement counted". All the academics turn out to be enthusiastic fans of her books. Yet even in "haunts of ancient peace", she soon comes to realise, "very odd things could crawl and creep beneath lichen-covered stones" - as poison-pen letters and obscene graffiti start sprouting. And since some of the abuse is expressed in Latin verse, it seems clear that one of the dons must be behind it.

Most of the books by these golden-age writers are still in print and widely available (and Agatha Christie, of course, remains a worldwide bestseller), loved for their period charm or dismissed as symptomatic of all that was most small-minded and snobbish in England between the wars. Yet many later detective writers have continued in this tradition. P. D. James and Elizabeth George have both written Cambridge novels. And there have been at least three series of Oxford detective novels.

Those by Jocelyn Davey (the pen name of a senior civil servant and former academic, Chaim Raphael), starting with The Undoubted Deed (1961), feature a wordy Oxford don called Ambrose Usher, based on Isaiah Berlin, who keeps stumbling upon murders and tends to say things such as "Wittgenstein is certain he can never know what he looks like when he's not looking in a mirror, but he keeps trying to peep all the same". Veronica Stallwood has now published 13 Kate Ivory novels, starting with Death and the Oxford Box (1993).

And then, of course, there are Colin Dexter's Last Bus to Woodstock, 12 further Inspector Morse novels (1975-99) and the 33 episodes in the spin-off television series (1987-99). The latter gives much of the world its image of Oxford.

So what do today's academics make of this whole tradition of "snobbery with violence"? And do they see any other parallels with academic life? Particularly in areas such as archaeology, the notion of "scholarly detective work" is the oldest of cliches. Are researchers really like detectives or is this a mere fantasy that academics and others have about their work? Do whodunnits have a particular appeal to the academic mind?

Sally Munt, professor of media studies at the University of Sussex and author of Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime Novel (1994), is sceptical of any such link. "Academics are like everybody else in following popular genres," she argues, "though they may then try to find explanations to justify their preferences."

Sophie Read, lecturer in English at Christ's College, Cambridge, takes a different line. Research and detection, she says, "are both about the search for meaning, interpretation, motivation, so there's an element of vanity, a sort of self-identification with those who do things by thinking, seeing more than normal people do".

But there is also a crucial difference in that the detectives "do something unequivocally practical and good".

"In the golden-age writers, the death penalty is still in force - so the stakes are notionally higher and there's the necessity to get it right," says Read. "That is part of their appeal, though I'm implacably opposed to the death penalty in real life."

Read was keen on Sherlock Holmes as a child but really got hooked on detective fiction just after her finals, when she continued to go to the library every day, took a break from "serious literature" and spent six months reading for pure pleasure. She retains "a great fondness even for the clunkiest".

Mary Evans, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Gender Institute, has been "reading detective fiction for longer than I care to remember". When her children were small, she says, she much enjoyed "the American women detectives of the 1980s from feminist presses" such as Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski who "took you vicariously to a place where women were leading independent lives, problem-solving, eating when they wanted".

She later got fed up with the chases and violence of this fantasy world and developed a taste for the "police procedurals", such as Ruth Rendell's Wexford novels, P. D. James and their Scandinavian equivalents, which stress "the slog rather than the adventure" of detective work.

Evans is now researching a book that will explore the golden age, the rival "hard-boiled" school represented by Raymond Chandler and the subsequent emergence of the police procedural. One of the striking aspects of the first wave is the dominance of Agatha Christie and her fellow "queens of crime", notably Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. All but Marsh were English or Scottish. So what was it about the lives of such women - or the inadequacies of British men - that made them turn to thoughts of murder?

Since they largely created the vast market for whodunnits, argues Evans, it doesn't make sense to see them as just cranking out formulaic fiction that readers already wanted. She interprets them, rather, as expressing their own, often not very attractive values and anxieties - "making the world safe and conventional, holding back modernity, keeping out change and new thinking, often associated at the time with changing roles for women. They were actively reactionary with a small 'r', though they don't engage with politics". One will never find in such books "a blueprint for independent urban women", says Evans. And Sayers' detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was "a huge fantasy about a male saviour who never turned up in her own life".

But although Evans is clearly unsympathetic to detective novels' "nostalgia for something simpler, clean and tidy, where things can be put right by a simple solution", she also sees this as part of their appeal to academics.

"Academic life is a bit like chasing the mouse you can never catch," she says. "You can never answer all the questions that exist in the world. You don't - and shouldn't - arrive at a single simple solution. But that's also frustrating, and so there's always a fantasy, which detective novels satisfy, of reaching the one definitive answer."

Alison Light, senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Newcastle, looked at Christie and Sayers as part of a wider study of English conservatism between the wars, Forever England (1991). "It doesn't make sense," she argues, "to hive off the great modernist writers from their popular contemporaries. It is more interesting to look at the different ways they are responding to the same pressures. In the period after the First World War, the British saw themselves as a different sort of nation, a nation in retreat, and golden-age detective fiction is a kind of literature of convalescence."

Yet the same period, Light suggests, was also "the golden age of the don", a time when academics had a glamour and status they have long since lost. Something of this image still prevails in popular culture: "You get a far more reverential attitude to learning and teaching in the Morse and Lewis television series than you would find in a real university."

Cora Kaplan, visiting professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London, has always read detective fiction as well as other popular genres such as upmarket bodice rippers, science fiction and historical novels - and has always believed that it deserved to be taken seriously. She even met her second husband when giving a talk on crime fiction in Sheffield.

Kaplan is unsure whether she sees such books as "a guilty pleasure or just part of the continuum of writing", since "problem-solving and escapism are part of all reading". Her masters students, on the other hand, tend to be rather surprised when she asks them to analyse Gaudy Night and Tey's Franchise Affair alongside more canonical authors. But while there is a good deal of casual racism, anti-Semitism and snobbery in a writer such as Agatha Christie, it is no more prominent - and arguably less virulent - than what one finds in T. S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf. In both cases, suggests Kaplan, there is "the same tension between conservative façade and radical undercurrents".

When Clive Bloom, emeritus professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University, first went into academia, he says he "wanted to revive the influential popular fiction of the past". While admitting that it is "nice to read unreflectively" and that detective fiction offers "a holiday for intellectuals", he points out that many of the key figures in literary theory - Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan - have been very interested in it. Though his own recent work has focused on the Gothic, he is also the general editor of a series called Crime Files (Palgrave Macmillan), which was launched in 2000. Academics are apparently queueing up to write for him, and two of the books have been nominated recently for Mystery Writers of America Edgar awards, the genre's equivalent of the Oscars.

The rise of detective fiction in the 1920s, notes Bloom, "coincides with the creation of crosswords in newspapers. The books are also elaborate puzzles that don't have much blood or go in for forensics - perhaps people couldn't deal with real blood so soon after the First World War." While he accepts that they are "inherently conservative, as the endings restore the status quo and people marry within their social class", he also believes this is often overstated.

The popular female writers of the interwar years are far more "modern" - less moralising and "spiritual", more open about sex and money - than their equivalents before the Great War. They are far less racist and jingoistic than contemporary bestselling but now forgotten adventure novelists. And while people today may take a certain pleasure in their unthinkingly non-PC attitudes to race, the rascally Greeks, inscrutable Orientals and crooked Jews are basically just plot devices, red herrings designed to distract readers' attention from the real murderer under their noses.

Above all, social snobbery within detective fiction is more than matched by the intellectual snobbery towards it. "Agatha Christie created some of most famous characters in fiction," as Bloom reminds us, "and has lasted as long as James Joyce."

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