You know that kid in class who always knew all the answers? The one who always got the highest scores? That student might have had a hard time socially, but academically? That’s a different story. Many of those kids grew up to be intellectuals who invented things, found cures, created technological breakthroughs, and more. In crime fiction, plenty of them become sleuths, or work with sleuths to solve cases. And their intellectual expertise can be very useful. It’s little wonder they feature as often as they do in the genre. Here are just a few examples.
Both John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell and Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen are intellectuals. They’re both professors who also have an interest in detection. And their skills and special knowledge give them a useful framework for understanding cases and for making sense of clues and other evidence. And, not surprisingly, the puzzles they solve are largely intellectual.
Agatha Christie’s novels don’t really focus on intellectuals as sleuths, although they are sometimes characters in stories. For instance, in The Hollow, we meet David Angkatell, who’s currently at Oxford. His focus is his studies, and he’s not much for a lot of social interaction. He’s a reluctant guest at a house party given by one of his relatives, Lady Lucy Angkatell. David wants nothing more than to be left alone as much as possible, but that proves impossible when one of the other house guests, Dr. John Christow, is murdered. Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage nearby, and he gets involved in the investigation. David isn’t perhaps shown in the most sympathetic light, but it’s interesting to see how he reacts to the experience of mixing with others and being involved in a case of murder.
Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway is a forensic anthropologist associated with the University of North Norfolk. She’s got a lot of expertise and background in the history of the area as well as expertise in forensic science. The local police, especially in the form of Inspector Harry Nelson, often rely on her to get as much information as possible from remains when they’re found. Fans of Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver can tell you that he’s also an anthropologist (his specialty is cultural anthropology). Oliver has been consulted on cases in several different parts of the world, so the novels take place in a number of different settings.
Christine Poulson has two series that feature intellectuals. One is her Cassandra James series. James is the Head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. In the three novels featuring her (I hope there will be more – ahem!), James’ background in academia, and her expertise in Victorian literature and theatre, prove to be key to finding out the truth behind the murders she investigates. Poulson’s other protagonist is Katie Flanagan, a scientist and laboratory researcher. Her expertise has drawn her into several cases of murder. We also learn something about the life of a scientific researcher. There’s the pressure to publish, the push to get funding, and the ethical issues involved in scientific study.
One of Keigo Higashino’s protagonists is Tokyo-based Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. He’s a mathematician and physics professor who is consulted on cases that seem ‘impossible’ on the surface. His expertise in physics and mathematics gives him a very useful perspective on how a crime might be committed, and that leads the police to the ‘who.’ So he’s consulted from time to time when the police are faced with a complex case.
Janice MacDonald’s Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig is a sessional university lecturer. Her background is in literature, and she’s done her share of research. In Next Margaret and Another Margaret, her own particular research interest in author Margaret Ahlers is key to some mysteries in her own life. In Eye of the Beholder, her research skills help to solve a mystery that has to do with the world of art history. Craig’s research skills also help her to uncover a mystery from the past in Condemned to Repeat. This series also offers the reader a look at contemporary campus life. There’s also an interesting look at the pressure to publish, the relations between senior faculty and lecturers, and the social structure of the campus.
There’s a similar behind-the-scenes look at the academic, intellectual life in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series. Shreve is a political scientist and academic, whose deep knowledge of the local and national political scenes is very helpful in several of the mysteries she encounters. Some of the novels feature mysteries that have to do with other topics, but woven through the series is Shreve’s expertise in political science and political history, her university background, and her understanding of research.
Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti’s wife is Paola Falier. She’s a professor of English Literature at the University of Ca Pesaro, and is passionate about her topic. As you might guess, she has her own opinions about things, and often serves as her husband’s conscience. In a few of the novels in this series, her research and thinking skills are very helpful as Brunetti investigates. She thinks critically, too, and makes sense of things that might not otherwise seem to make sense. Professoressa Falier may not be the main protagonist in this series, but she certainly plays an important role.
It makes sense that crime fiction would include several intellectuals as major characters or protagonists. They’ve got expertise and a lot of background, they often have strong critical thinking skills, and they can be interesting in and of themselves. Which ones do you like best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Modern Woman.