Janice MacDonald Goes Back to School in Fiction

Book Cover Another Margaret

The latest title in Janice MacDonald's Randy Craig Mystery Series is Another Margaret, in which Randy Craig, MacDonald's peripatetic academic sleuth, helps her best friend organize their 20-year reunion at the University of Alberta. Not suffering any of the typical reunion anxieties, however, Randy is more concerned with resolving a 20 year old CanLit scandal and catching a ruthless killer. Her tumultuous past as a graduate student comes rushing into the present as she faces off against old ghosts and imminent death.

In this guest post, MacDonald explores the appeal of the campus novel, and provocatively asserts that academic mysteries are superior to their mainstream literary counterparts every time

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Although we may have worked our way through several thick, trashy beach reads and even tackled one of those bucket list denizens like Proust or Tolstoy while slathering on the sunscreen, we perpetual students, we bookish types, revel in the fall. Autumn days, crisp and clear, bring to many the timeless desire to buy knee socks, punched hole reinforcements and a new Thermos. It also brings to mind booklists and, for those of us no longer attending institutes of higher learning, campus or academic novels.

As the writer of the Randy Craig Mysteries, a series set in and about the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, I understand the compulsion. There is nothing better than returning to the campus for our fictional fix: it’s a place many of us recognize, and give or take a decade or a generation, it’s still the same—a close-knit community where the currency is knowledge rather than money. (Oh who are we kidding, in most cases you still have to follow the money.) Many early mystery writers were themselves university dons, often writing under assumed names, creating mysteries that were the equivalent of the Friday crossword puzzle—mental mindbenders and logic problems dressed in plots.

I began writing my series when I was finishing my MA and continued through my years as a sessional. Now that I have left academe altogether, the series feeds my perpetual student gene. While New Year’s Eve is when most people change their calendars and make their resolutions, my year always begins in September, as do many of my novels. My amateur detective, Randy Craig lives one block from campus and works as a gypsy from niche to niche in the university milieu. She has been a grad student, a sessional, connected to the Centre of Ethnomusicology, helping with a campus historic site, and connected to a local Shakespeare Festival through a funding grant. In the latest book, she is helping her friend Denise with an English Department reunion as part of the Alumni Weekend. No matter what the season is, Randy is never far from that mystical smell of old books emanating from Rutherford Library. In Randy’s world, reading is privileged and the autumn is always full of promises, just waiting to be broken on the back of relentless winter.

In Randy’s world, reading is privileged and the autumn is always full of promises, just waiting to be broken on the back of relentless winter.

Book Cover Gaudy Night

When reading novels set in or near academe, I tend to limit myself to mysteries, rather than mainstream campus fiction. Mysteries contain clearly defined characters I can believe in, situations I can relate to or recall, and locations easy to conjure up through description. Charlotte Macleod’s Peter Shandy novels, set in an agricultural college, while whimsically over the top, stayed true to academic principles and college layouts. Amanda Cross’ more uptown Columbia University novels starring Kate Fansler seemed to be a gloriously shared vision of what Professor Carolyn Heilbrun’s own experiences teaching there must have been. Colin Dexter’s novels gave us a vision of Oxford most of us will never be able to afford. Of course, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night took us to Oxford several years before he even started the Morse series, and to a ladies college at that.

Yes, give me academic mysteries, now that the air is getting crisp and the geese are honking overhead. But I can take or leave the mainstream academic novels. Penned mostly by men, these books tend to deal with lithe young women sleeping with their dumpy, older male professors. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we call it fiction.

I can take or leave the mainstream academic novels. Penned mostly by men, these books tend to deal with lithe young women sleeping with their dumpy, older male professors.

So, if you’re anything like me, I will see you out there salivating over pencil crayons and fondling binders. Sure, you could sublimate your desire to go back to school by taking Italian for Tourists, or signing up for an online seminar in taxidermy. Or you could just audit: buy an academic mystery, pull up your knee socks and go crunch through some fallen leaves.

Check out our list of Great Canadian Campus Novels. Tweet us any titles we're missing! 

Janice MacDonald is the author of eleven books, including novels, non-fiction titles, and a children's book. She has been widely anthologized, and her popular Randy Craig novels were the first mystery series set in Edmonton. Janice has taught English literature, communications, and creative writing at both the University of Alberta and Grant MacEwan College. She currently works for the the Government of Alberta. Born in Banff, Alberta, Janice lives and writes in Edmonton and considers herself to be a quintessential Albertan.

September 17, 2015
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