The Contemporary Academic Mystery Novel

A Study in Genre

by Elżbieta Perkowska-Gawlik (Author)
©2021 Monographs 270 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 19


The book focuses on contemporary staff-centred mystery novels set in the academic domain, written by scholars who enrich the generic convention of the detective novel with their academic expertise. The author delineates the academic mystery genre conventions and their connection with the characteristics of both the classical detective novel and the academic (university) novel. The analysis shows that the academic mystery novel not only fills in the classical detective formula with academic discourse, university settings, and the characters and conflicts of academics from different echelons of the university hierarchy but also, and more importantly, refers to and comments upon the current situation of tertiary education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: The academic mystery novel as detective fiction
  • 1.1 Introduction of the Classical Detective Formula
  • 1.2 Playing with(in) patterns: Metafictional games in the academic mystery novel
  • 1.3 Academics as Characters of Detective Fiction
  • Chapter II: The academic mystery novel as academic fiction
  • 2.1 Introduction of the academic novel ‘formula’
  • 2.2 Playing with(in) patterns: Intertextual games in the academic mystery novel
  • 2.3 The academic gender gap
  • Chapter III: The academic mystery novel as meta-educational fiction
  • 3.1 Introduction of andragogy
  • 3.1.1 The academic sleuth and relational teaching
  • 3.1.2 The academic sleuth and the history of mathematics
  • 3.1.3 The academic sleuth and the basics of economics
  • Conclusion
  • Works cited
  • Index of names
  • Series index

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For me, as for many others,

the reading of detective stories is an addiction

like tobacco or alcohol.

W.H. Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage”

Perhaps it’s ultimate narcissism for an English professor to write literary criticism

about novels by English professors about English professors,

but my favourite academic novels are about English departments nonetheless.

Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers

The action of most novels analysed in the present study is set in Literature Departments, which concurs with the opinions of Auden and Showalter that reading a detective story about people of your own kind is more than alluring, it is simply irresistible. Unlike the adventures of other departments’ representatives, who also have their share in the world of fictional crime, those experienced by literature scholars usually revolve around reading, studying, analysing, or even writing works of fiction. Moreover, their own critical studies less often engender sincere admiration of their departmental colleagues than provoke their perfectly sincere envy, which almost invariably leads to plagiarism, the worst academic offence in both the fictional and the real world.

The generic label ‘academic mystery’ intertwines academia or other institutions of tertiary education with apparently insoluble criminal conundrums, which are, more often than not, mysterious deaths of characters whose lives and interests are linked to a university. Students, librarians and administrative staff may, of course, play the role of the victim; however, most villains, who are quite frequently academics, tend to focus their murderous endeavours on others of their kind, i.e. the members of faculty. Although in the course of the narrative an unnatural death takes its toll, the reader is not exposed to too many scenes of physical violence since the vast majority of the academic mysteries are written in the manner of the cosy detective novel where the circumstances of the murder, which ←7 | 8→usually “take[s]‌ place off stage,” are slowly and meticulously revealed in the process of the “largely cerebral” detection (Kramer IX).

In the labyrinthine taxonomy of crime fiction, academic mysteries are frequently catalogued under the heading of the traditional cozy,1 which is another name given to the mystery novel whose scaffolding is formed by the classical detective formula. Cozies are “mysteries which contain no explicit sex, or extensive gore, or violence” (“Malice Domestic”). They retain the formula of the classical whodunit flourishing in the 1920s and 1930s. The beginning of the period known as the Golden Age is indicated by the publication of Agatha Christie’s first detective novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). The development and immense popularity of classical mystery novels in the interwar years are often ascribed to the “[c]‌hanges in reading habits” (Symons 93).

In the wake of the Great War, the previously largely masculine audience for crime fiction had been drastically reduced and predominantly female post-war readership required a different kind of fiction; not short stories in the periodicals purchased on the way to work but longer fiction, in Britain often borrowed from one of the increasing number of public lending libraries. (Worthington 116)

Worthington suggests that to a large extent the cozy mystery was created in response to the growing demand of female readership, whose social position changed in the process of emancipation (116). Symons underlines the importance of the phenomenon that a great deal of detective fiction was “written by women, and essentially also for women” (Symons 94). It appears that women turned to reading the classical whodunit because it appreciated the powers of the female mind; it suggested that women may be engaged in the long process of solving the most complicated criminal conundrums along with the amateur sleuth. Moreover, the cozy mystery, which neglected the highly problematic economic conditions of the twenties and thirties,2 presenting the indestructible world of the affluent ←8 | 9→only temporarily troubled by a ‘dead body,’ provided an escape into “[t]‌he fairy tale land of the Golden Age” (104).

Cozy mysteries like many fairy tales are optimistic in their message: once the perpetrator is exposed and punished the peaceful life of the closed society which happened to be endangered by the crime is momentarily restored. As Rosemary Canfield Reisman observes, “cozy mysteries always conclude on optimistic notes. Thus, they simultaneously provide intelligent readers with intellectual challenges while enabling them to escape from a world in which the news always seems to be troubling” (2011). Involving its readers in intellectual games, i.e. solving clue puzzles, the classical whodunit of the Golden Age provides pure entertainment which is not meant to strike any emotional chords. The rules of the game are well known both on the part of the author and on the part of the reader.

“Almost since its inception, critics have been denouncing the rise and announcing the demise of the whodunit” (Grella 30), neglecting the devotion of the ‘pure puzzle’ readership. This subgenre of crime fiction, which is typically associated with authors like Agatha Christie3 or Dorothy Sayers, has never faded into oblivion, although in his seminal study Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (1976) John G. Cawelti voices some doubts concerning the future of the pattern stating that “[h]‌istorians and critics seem to generally agree that the ‘golden age of detection’ is past” (136). In Cawelti’s view the highly formulaic genre where the order of the presented world is never questioned but always sustained apparently has ceased to provide “a major stimulus to creativity” (136). The logical reasoning so much favoured ←9 | 10→by the genre does not correspond with the prevailing irrationality and ambiguity faced by contemporary readers. Moreover, as Cawelti argues, the certainty that the detective is able to protect the social order only momentarily disrupted by the crime “[embodies] a quaintly antiquated view of the world” (136).

However, fortunately for the cozies, Cawelti’s reservations concerning the future of the classical detective formula prove to be unsubstantiated. As Canfield Reisman notes, “the resurgence of cozies” in the 1960s is provoked by the demand of “some readers tired of realism, with its brutal details and consistent pessimism” (2017). Consequently, the works which follow in the footsteps of the mysteries written by the Queen of Crime are unceasingly published, and in 1989 the triumphant “revival [of the classical detective formula is] recognized by the establishment … of Malice Domestic” (2017), a non-profit organization presenting the prestigious Agatha Awards. The extensive and frequently updated lists of contemporary cozy mysteries provided by numerous websites either entirely devoted to this subgenre, such as www.cozy-mystery.com, or dealing with crime fiction in general, where cozies occupy a prominent position, such as www.stopyourekillingme.com, make it clear that regarding cozies as “a booming business” is not an exaggeration.

Among other characteristics traditional cozies and academic mysteries share a certain lightness of tone. Murder as the most serious form of homicide should not be treated frivolously, yet in the classical detective formula the plethora of complications encountered by amateur sleuths or even the sleuths themselves are frequently presented in a humorous manner. Repulsive scenes of violence are among the traits of neither cozies nor academic mysteries since both appear to be written with the aim of providing intellectual puzzles and are “not meant to stir the reader emotionally” (Canfield Reisman 2011).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (August)
the university novel intertextuality women professors amateur sleuths metafictional elements classical detective
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 270 pp.

Biographical notes

Elżbieta Perkowska-Gawlik (Author)

Elżbieta Perkowska-Gawlik is Assistant Professor of English Literature at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin. Her main research interests include academic and crime fiction, utopianism, narratology and cognitive analysis. She has published on contemporary British and American academic novels and utopian narratives.


Title: The Contemporary Academic Mystery Novel
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272 pages