Death in the Dormitories

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Death in the Dormitories

Murder mysteries set at schools and universities

Holden Caulfield describing his classmates (and everyone else in the world) as phonies. The "O Captain! My Captain!" scene in Dead Poets Society. Victorian schoolgirls dipping their rivals' braids in inkpots in A Little Princess

School stories abound in fiction and film, and we seem to have a nearly endless appetite for them. Or at least I do (I will admit to you here in not-secret that I have read the entirety of the boarding school-set Gossip Girl spin-off series It Girl.) And obviously the best way to improve on a good thing is to add a murder... right?

The school mystery has been a part of the genre for decades, including during the golden age of the Queens of Crime, where it appeared in Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night (1935). Regarded as one of the best of Sayers' popular Lord Peter Wimsey novels, the book actually features Harriet Vane, recently-acquitted murder suspect and Lord Peter's paramour, who returns to Oxford for a reunion only to find that the faculty and students of her former college are the victims of a set of vicious pranks and attacks. Harriet sets out to uncover the perpetrator, only to become--of course--a target herself.

Sometimes the act of teaching itself becomes dangerous, even with the best of intentions. In The Furies by Natalie Haynes (2014), an actress who's taken a job teaching drama therapy to 'troubled' teenagers starts to notice that her students may be taking the Greek tragedies they're studying a little too far into real life.

Sometimes, the center of the plot is a charismatic teacher who draws pupils -- often misfits and newcomers -- into their sphere of influence, and it doesn't always end with "O Captain! My Captain!" In Donna Tartt's bestselling The Secret History (1992), the brilliant and libertine classics students at an isolated university step outside the boundaries of modern morality with the encouragement of their larger than life professor -- and land themselves in a situation they have no idea how to control. Similarly, an enthusiastic and magnetic teacher forms an elite clique at an exclusive high school in Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2007), with disastrous consequences. 

In The Likeness (2008) and The Secret Place (2014) by Tana French, it is the relationships between the students themselves that drive the plot, as tightly-knit cliques close ranks against the detectives trying to solve cold case murders. In the first case (the second in French's loosely linked Dublin Murder Squad series), a young detective takes advantage of her striking resemblance to a dead university student to infiltrate the girl's intensely secretive group of friends. In the latter (book five of the series), a card posted to a secret-sharing bulletin board reopens the mystery of a death on the campus of a boarding school a year earlier, where two rival groups of girls each suspect the other of writing the card -- and committing the murder.

Finally, in the darkly hilarious case of The Basic Eight, (1998) debut novel of Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler, it's the murderer -- excuse me, murderess -- who just can't resist telling you all the details herself.