What Makes Academic Crime Fiction Tick?

Essays, stories, and books of mine are taught at colleges and universities around the country, so I've been invited to speak at a lot of different institutions over the years, from Ivy League schools to community colleges.

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They all have something in common. Invariably, a faculty member will take me aside during my time there and tell me about somebody eccentric or even out-of-control in their department. Or about scandal, a schism, or some long-simmering vendetta. And I think to myself, "You can't make this stuff up!" Followed by: "Great material!" Properly disguised, of course....

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There was a professor who told me she had to quit serving on hiring committees because a senior professor announced that he didn't like a candidate because "He smells." Nobody else had noticed anything (not that it should have mattered) but they yielded to the professor's seniority. Another related the story of a professor who unexpectedly and savagely attacked his own student at the student's doctoral defense just to undermine a rival professor on the committee who liked his student. Crazy, right?

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I've heard of people with barely any publications achieve tenure through favoritism and then become petty, smiling dictators over faculty with far more experience and reputation. There's constant infighting, piss-poor collegiality--but worst of all, the sad stories of contemptuous professors who treat their students like dirt.

I served my time in academia for over a decade. And a few years after I left, I decided to start a mystery series set in that environment. Outsiders slam academia for not being "the real world," but I disagree. At times it's far too real. It can exhibit the oversize egos of professional sports; the hypocrisy of politics; the cruelty of big business; and the ruthlessness of organized crime.

I set my series at the fictional State University of Michigan in "Michiganapolis" somewhere in mid-Michigan. Outsiders can make great observers and sleuths, so my sleuth Nick Hoffman is a composition teacher there. That makes him low man on the totem pole in his Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric (EAR) -- especially since he enjoys teaching this basic course.

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He's even more of an outsider because he's published something useful, a bibliography of Edith Wharton, as opposed to a recondite work of criticism only a few dozen people might read or understand. On top of all that, he's from the East Coast, he's Jewish in a mostly Gentile department, and he's out.

Universities in a period of tight budgets, higher education costs, and shrinking enrollments in the Humanities make a great setting for satire. As I once heard a sociologist at an Oxford University conference say, "Even at the best of times, academics don't have good methods of conflict resolution."

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This blog is dedicated to my friends and colleagues who are good teachers.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including The Nick Hoffman mysteries, available at Amazon. His latest mysteryAssault With a Deadly Lie was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.

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