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Death Beneath the Dreaming Spires: Murder Mysteries set at Oxford University

Who knew college could be deadly? 

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  • Photo Credit: Sandip Roy / Unsplash

The city of Oxford is a place where between one and four murders occur each year, but in crime fiction, it’s one of the most menacing places on earth, especially if you study, teach, or work at one of the city’s prestigious colleges.

Indeed, if generations of detective writers are to be believed, Oxford University must be the world's most lethal campus.

As this selection of mysteries shows, both students and professors are in equal danger from the killers who—apparently—lurk in the shadows of every quadrangle. 

An Oxford Tragedy

An Oxford Tragedy

By J.C. Masterman

Getting the ball rolling when it came to dead dons, was Masterman, an alumnus of Worcester College and later Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Published in 1933 this old-school mystery features the cerebral Austrian lawyer-sleuth Ernst Brendel and is narrated by his Watson-like right-hand, Francis Winn, a tutor at the fictional St Thomas’s College. 

The case involves an unpopular tutor who is found shot dead in the Dean’s office, an event that understandably sends shockwaves through the quiet academic world and culminates in suicide.

Masterman would write a sequel, The Case of Four Friends, but not until 1957.  

Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night

By Dorothy L. Sayers

The blue-stocking Queen of Crime attended Somerville College, Oxford in the years following the end of World War One, but her connection to the university was maintained through her father, the chaplain at Christ Church College.

She puts her inside knowledge to good use in this neatly woven 1935 mystery featuring upper-crust detective Lord Peter Wimsey and his future wife, the feisty actress Harriet Vane.

Vane is called in by the Dean of the posh Oxford College she once attended following an outbreak of vandalism, obscene messages, and poison-pen letters. Vane is soon joined by her boyfriend and the pair foil a malicious plot that has been constructed in order to drive a vulnerable student to suicide.

Sayers is at her best here, gleefully pointing up the sort virulent class snobbery and terror of reputational damage that underpinned and often undermined elite British society. 

The Case of the Gilded Fly (The Gervase Fen Mysteries)

The Case of the Gilded Fly (The Gervase Fen Mysteries)

By Edmund Crispin

Another star of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Crispin studied modern languages at St John’s College, Oxford in the early 1940s.

All of his waspishly witty mystery novels feature the cherubic, naïve yet brilliant amateur sleuth Gervase Fen, a Professor of English at the fictional St Christopher’s College. 

Fen makes his debut in this classic locked room mystery, which Crispin wrote in just ten days while still a student.

The satisfyingly puzzling plot revolves around the murder of an actress with a lively love life—shot dead in one of the undergraduate rooms at St Christopher’s—and features a classic comfy crime selection of suspects ranging from playwrights to rival thespians.  

The Riddle of the Third Mile (Inspector Morse Series Book 6)

The Riddle of the Third Mile (Inspector Morse Series Book 6)

By Colin Dexter

Nobody did more to establish Oxford as the UK’s fictional crime capital than Dexter, who actually studied at Cambridge, but worked as an administrator at Oxford University from 1966 until his retirement.

His mystery fiction featuring the irascible Detective Chief Inspector Morse of the Thames Valley Police and his amiable sidekick, Sergeant Lewis ran to 13 novels and a volume of short stories and became one of the most successful crime series in British TV history.

 This mystery from 1981 was the sixth in the series. In it, a dismembered corpse turns up in an Oxford canal. Morse suspects it is that of the missing Professor Browne-Smith who taught him English at the fictional Lonsdale College.

The hunt for the killer takes in bitter academic rivalries and the bloody battles of World War Two. 

antonia fraser oxford blood book cover

Oxford Blood

By Antonia Fraser

Both Fraser and her sleuth, the inquisitive TV journalist Jemima Shore were students at Lady Margaret Hall. In this fun 1988 mystery, Jemima returns to her alma mater to film a documentary.

She’s no sooner done her first piece to camera, however, than an undergraduate turns up dead. Another death soon follows.

At the center of the mayhem is Lord Saffron, an upper-crust student who may not be all he seems. 

the oxford murders guillermo martinez book cover

The Oxford Murders

By Guillermo Martinez

Argentinean novelist Martinez spent two years as a postgraduate at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute. His brilliant 2003 murder mystery is narrated by a South American mathematics student who is studying in the city.

When he discovers the dead body of his landlady, Mrs. Eagleton the police judge it to be a simple robbery gone wrong. 

However, a series of fiendishly complex mathematical clues found at the scene lead the student and his professor, the logician Arthur Seldom to conclude that a serial killer is at work.

Only by deciphering the clues will the pair be able to stop him. Luckily you don’t need to be a genius with numbers to enjoy this gripping thriller.  

A Killing in November: a razor-sharp Oxford mystery (DI Wilkins Mysteries Book 1)

A Killing in November: a razor-sharp Oxford mystery (DI Wilkins Mysteries Book 1)

By Simon Mason

Mason’s mystery novels featuring coppers DI Raymond Wilkins and DI Ryan Wilkins (the two men share a surname but have very different backgrounds—the former a posh British-Nigerian who attended Balliol College, the latter a product of one of Oxford’s roughest trailer parks—yes, they do exist) have rightly been described as Morse for the modern world. 

Mason’s books are traditional in style with taut plots and great characterization but unlike Morse, they feature recognizable facets of modern British life, from desperate asylum seekers to workplace bullying.

In this 2022 novel—the first in what is currently a three-book series—the mismatched detective duo begins an investigation after the discovery of a dead body in the study of the Provost of Saint Barnabas’ College.  

Featured image: Sandip Roy / Unsplash