Mysteries at Michigan
By James Tobin
Even by day, the Library felt like a dark, dense warren inhabited by nocturnal creatures.– From "Maze" (1982), by A.H. Garnet
Chapter 1 Fear on Familiar Terrain
You may never have heard of the Michigan law professor who was baked to a toasty crisp in the oven of the Lawyers Club kitchen.
Or the English professor presumed dead when his face suddenly went missing in a late-night encounter with a killer.
If not, then you’ve missed out on the shelf-load of not-so-cozy mystery novels set in a fictionalized University of Michigan.
They’re among the dozens of fictional tales of murder on college campuses, a deep subcategory of the inexhaustible mystery genre.
Possibly there are so many campus mysteries because so many writers begin to practice their craft in college classrooms. Or because authors are tempted to give scholarly characters with a Sherlockian streak a chance to match wits with slow-witted local Lestrades.
More likely, it’s just because the juxtaposition of evil and the idyllic sets off a delicious chill along the spine, and the college campus is the last American idyll.
Whatever the lure, the academic setting has attracted dozens of mystery writers, from revered bestsellers such as P.D. James (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman , set at Cambridge) and Amanda Cross (Death in a Tenured Position , set at Harvard) down to the scribblers of such forgotten tales as Campus Corpse (by Kenneth Hopkins, 1963) and 70,000 Witnesses: A Football Mystery (by Cortland Fitzsimmons, 1931).
Read on, Gentle Reader, to find out what happened when writers conjured terror on eerily familiar terrain, each reflecting the mores of life at U-M in a different decade.
Chapter 2 The 1940s: Devil in the Stacks
I Smell the Devil, by Carey Magoon (Farrar & Rinehart, 1943)
In I Smell the Devil, published during World War II, mystery germinates in the deepest inner sanctum of scholarship, “the ivory castle of research.” It begins with a dismal odor and a hand reaching through the window of a book-lined study — striking departures from the monastic routine of Adelaide Stone, scholar of medieval literature at Cowabet College.
Adelaide is a fictional stand-in for her two creators. The author, “Carey Magoon,” was the pseudonym of a two-writer team, Elisabeth Carey (1889-1964) and Marian Waite Magoon (1889-1975). Both were in late middle-age when the book was published. Both were teachers who earned graduate degrees at Michigan before World War II, and both Ypsilantians.
The setting they chose for their tale — from the “brooding elms” of “the Diagonal” to the cheery Sugar Bowl diner, a real place from 1911 to 1967 — is clearly the campus of their alma mater as it was in the 1930s.
Adelaide and her flat-mate, the tart-tongued Henrietta, fit a stereotype not so common in popular culture now as it once was — the brainy spinster who thinks more quickly than males of greater authority and prestige. They are teachers of English taking time off to pursue graduate degrees, debating split infinitives and Latin antiquities — until the midnight murder of Miss Christopherson, the chief guardian of the campus’s rare book collection.
Adelaide fears she will become the object of suspicion. She has, after all, removed a collection of writings by the early Christian father St. Cyprian — without permission! — from the General Library’s Rare Book Room. It had never occurred to her that someone might commit murder to possess a volume of such exceeding rarity.
The deserted General Library by night — or is it deserted? — makes a suitably spooky setting. It was only 20-odd years old when the authors of I Smell the Devil haunted the stacks. Designed by the great Detroit architect Albert Kahn, the library was built to hold a million volumes. But the supply soon outstripped the capacity, and the heavy shelves became so stuffed with books that even by day, the place felt like a dark, dense warren inhabited by nocturnal creatures.
Adelaide’s interests are bookish in the extreme. Her Ph.D. project is to search through medieval sermons for virtually identical Latin phrases that mean, respectively, “I shall give” and “I am going to give.” For what earthly purpose? To her, it’s entirely a game of the mind, a hunt for its own sake. She approves of something she once heard a colleague say — that “he can understand an intelligent person’s doing research to blot out reality as one plays Chinese checkers or reads mystery stories; but he can’t understand why such a person thinks he is really doing something that counts.”
So one might think. But it turns out that a mind honed by medieval scholarship is handy for outwitting a killer.
Sharp thinking by Adelaide and Henrietta come to the rescue of the young police detective investigating the crime, a former student of Adelaide’s on whom she appears to have a stifled crush. After many a twist and turn through blue books, The Chicago Manual of Style and a second murder, the killer loses his desperate handhold on a railing atop the campus observatory, and the death of a rare-book librarian is avenged.
As the story closes, Adelaide reflects on her brief career as a crime-buster.
“I longed for peace and the ivory tower,” she muses, “but would I ever be quite contented there again?”
"The Library felt like a dark, dense warren inhabited by nocturnal creatures."
Chapter 3 The 1960s: Gloom, Doom and Literature
Out of Shape, by Leonard Greenbaum (Harper and Row, 1969)
In The New York Times, a reviewer called Out of Shape “a half-kidding, half-affectionate picture of life amid the academics.” It may be half-kidding, but it’s a good deal less than half-affectionate. On Leonard Greenbaum’s Diag, one meets few characters to like enough to fear for.
A central figure — the murder victim himself, Professor Rudolph Reichet, offed by a gunshot to the face in Chapter Two…or so everyone thinks — is a senior faculty tyrant who treats his graduate-student assistants like indentured servants, condemned for eternity to the arcane sorting of their master’s numberless index cards.
One such assistant, Thomas Larkin, is the de facto hero of Out of Shape (so titled because Larkin was accidentally deprived of his buttocks in Army basic training). But he is so timid and down-in-the-mouth it’s a wonder he can solve a case of plagiarism, let alone murder.
Thomas toils in the subterranean realms at the bottom of the university’s hierarchy — until his status soars because he is one of the few people at all close to the late professor.
Thomas kept wondering. What had changed? A man whose only comfort had been the projections of his imagination suddenly had been granted license. Why? … A cardinal truth rose… It was not what he was but what he appeared to be that determined the reactions of the world to him. Reichet’s murder had imparted to him an appearance of significance…
The novel is set in the 1960s, with nods to the civil rights movement and the psychedelic scene, but the plot turns on events of the ’40s and ’50s. Admirers of the Nazis lurk in the shadows. We learn that in the McCarthy era, Professor Reichet had been investigated for ties to the Communist Party, a tale stolen from the University’s real-life tangle with McCarthyism.
The plot is a tempting labyrinth, but by the time Thomas emerges at the far end, sitting down to the further sorting of Professor Reichet’s index cards, which still “smelled of damp musk,” the reader is ready to flee academe for good.
“It was better not to meet novelists up close,” the author notes at one point, and indeed, Out of Shape is so gloomy that one suspects that meeting this author would have been no treat.
And therein lies the twist. For it seems that Leonard Greenbaum (1930-1973) was anything but a sourpuss. Rather, he was remembered at the time of his premature death as above all “a man who possessed a keen and perceptive interest in people.”
After earning bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees at U-M — and winning a major Hopwood Award in drama — he was for some years an instructor, like Thomas Larkin, in the English Department. (His experience as a teacher of freshman composition led him to write an influential essay calling for the abolition of “comp” as a century-old failed experiment. That alone would endear him to generations of undergraduates.)
He became a writer and producer for the University’s Television Center, then moved to a dual role as editor of U-M’s Phoenix Memorial Project and assistant professor in the College of Engineering.
Besides Out of Shape, he published short stories and magazine articles, and he was an active Democrat, advocate for the disabled, and member of the NAACP.
An award is given in his name by the Office of Financial Aid.
Chapter 4 The 1970s: Baked and Hard-Boiled
Maze, by A.H. Garnet (Ticknor & Fields, 1982)
Professor Arthur Browne of the Law School lives in a fine Greek Revival house at 310 Division Street. He is widely known and widely disliked — a hands-y and arrogant charm-peddler who entraps young women outside the lecture hall as director of the civic theater in “Harbour Woods.”
Cyrus Wilson is a hard-working assistant professor of English, ex-military intelligence, slogging through the eighth year of his doctoral research, his hopes of tenure fading fast. On the side he writes kids’ novels about a boy detective — hardly the stuff of scholarly achievement, as his colleagues are delighted to remind him.
But as it happens, Cy’s uncle is the chief of police in Harbour Woods, and the chief knows his nephew has a nose for detection.
So when the body of the lascivious Arthur Browne is discovered on a rack in the giant bread-baking oven in the Lawyers Club kitchen, “wrinkled and brown like a dried peach,” Cy Wilson is called in to help. Who knows? he thinks. “There’s more than one way to tenure.”
The plot unfolds on a campus not nearly so sheltered as the realms of I Smell the Devil and Out of Shape. The Harbour Woods of Maze still has the bucolic campus at its center, but the city has sprawled and sprouted connections to drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps — people unknown to the privileged elites of “Mid-Eastern University.”
“We live such insulated lives here in Harbour Woods,” one of them says. “In a lovely old house, surrounded by books…who would want to kill someone like Arthur?”
The answer: An elusive figure with half-spectacles who is seen near the scene of a series of crimes — the oven-toasting of Arthur Browne; the poisoning of the chairman of English; an attack on a poet-heiress, and the shooting of Mid-Eastern’s loutish and lecherous football coach, more Woody than Bo, “a virtual dictator who reported to a businessman athletic director who left him alone as long as every seat in the stadium was filled.”
“A little small for a big man,” the coach, while still among the living, sneered at a detective who played for the neighboring school in Ypsilanti. “Just a little small.”
The detective is John Guiterrez, a hard-boiled veteran trained in the Elmore Leonard school of world-weary crime detection. At first he is leery of Cy Wilson, the chief’s brainy nephew. But together they track the murderer through encounters with the football program, the literary salon that surrounds the “Hillman Prizes,” and Harbour Woods’s sleazier side streets.
Longtime Ann Arborites can enjoy Maze as a page-turning parlor game of name substitutions (the Swingletree/ Whiffletree Restaurant; the Old Bavarian/Old German; the Stationhouse/Gandy Dancer; Brewster House/Inglis House; the Hillman/Hopwood Prizes). It could have been written only by someone with a townie’s knowledge of Ann Arbor.
In fact, two such writers were responsible. The author, “A.H. Garnet,” was actually the team of Alfred Slote (1926- ), the beloved Ann Arbor author of many novels for young readers, most in the sports genre; and Garnet R. Garrison (1912-2000), a veteran radio and TV director who became U-M’s director of broadcasting. (Among many credits, he had been the announcer of the original “Lone Ranger” radio drama, first broadcast on Detroit’s WXYZ.) Maze was their second and final collaboration, following The Santa Claus Killer (1981).
They were a good team.
“A.H. Garnet,” said the Washington Post’s reviewer, “is a good storyteller who manages to meld sophisticated humor with terror and suspense, not an easy task.”
Chapter 5 The 1990s: Love, Death and Football
Bleeding Maize and Blue, by Susan Holtzer (St. Martin’s Press, 1996)
Bleeding Maize and Blue makes no bones about where its action unfolds. It’s the straight-out “University of Michigan” in “Ann Arbor.” Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent — and the guilty.
It’s one in a series of seven cozy Michigan mysteries by Susan Holtzer (1940- ), a U-M alumna who cut her teeth as a writer at the Michigan Daily.
Her recurring heroine is a crime-solving computer consultant, Anneke Haagen, 40-ish, “a tall, slim figure…drop-dead elegant without any of that Bloomfield Hillbilly look.” She consorts with Karl Genesko, an Ann Arbor police detective who was once a grid superstar for the Wolverines, “big, fast, strong, dedicated,” and “no intellectual lightweight,” either — just the guy for a gal super-sleuth to sleep with.
Yet in spite of the charisma of this detecting duo, Holtzer allows the spotlight in Bleeding Maize and Blue to be stolen by a younger heroine, a fearless sophomore sportswriter for the Daily named Zoe Kaplan. She launches the action by breaking her first big story — the NCAA is about to investigate Michigan’s football program for major violations of the recruiting rules. (She got the scoop by overhearing a secret conversation through the heating vents in the Michigan Union.)
But that’s nothing compared to the story that breaks the next day, when the NCAA’s investigator plunges to his death from a high spot in the Big House, a Michigan flagpole stuck through his thorax. And so the quest for a killer ensues, leading through big-money alumni gatherings and outdated computer circuitry to the finality of a flying tackle on the third yard line.
Holtzer catches the irony of “Michigan’s curiously schizophrenic reputation” for clean athletics and serious academics.
“Probably every rule-breaker at Michigan figures he’s the only one breaking the rules,” remarks a cynical Detroit sports columnist. “After all, it’s so non-Michigan.”
Holtzer’s loyalists want to believe in their alma mater even as they skirt the bounds of propriety in its name.
“Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why we do it?” [one alumni booster asks another.]
“Because it’s Michigan,” Richard said, still sounding angry. “Because it’s something we have that we can be proud of. Is that such a bad thing—to want something to be proud of?”
“Not if it’s real,” Jeffrey answered.
“I thought it was,” Richard replied bitterly.
Of the four books summarized here, Bleeding Maize and Blue poses the sharpest critique of life at U-M. But Holtzer is a loyalist, too. Her novel is steeped in her love for the place, whatever dark secrets it may be hiding.
“When a culture is flawed,” she tells readers in an author’s note, “its institutions are inevitably flawed as well. But it has always seemed to me that a great university is perhaps less flawed than other institutions, if only because it is one place where admitting to flaws is permitted.”