Best University-Adjacent Mysteries

Elizabeth Gilliland Rands
6 min readJun 7, 2023

Getting a good education really can be murder.

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

What is it about a university setting that makes murder seem not just plausible, but also inevitable? Between high pressure, late nights, a new sense of freedom and chaos, campus settings are rife for mysteries. Here are some of the best novels out there that feature a university setting.

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This one might be the most obvious, but that’s because any list about university murders would be incomplete without this dark academia classic, filled with elite students, secret societies, murder, and super smart people obsessed with Greek mythology. The reason why Tartt’s novel is so enduring is that the tension lies not so much in who committed Bunny’s murder (that’s revealed in basically the first chapter) but why the murder comes about. In fact, many of the books on this list are clearly paying homage to Tartt, which leads us to…

2. The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness by Tana French

I will read basically anything that Tana French writes. Like Tartt, French’s novels are more about the journey than the destination, so even though it isn’t too difficult to piece together whoddunit, the psychological mind games it takes to get there are what are most compelling about this novel. The main character, Cassie Maddox, is a detective who goes undercover at a university after her a student who could pass as her double is killed. Cassie takes the place of the student in the hopes of discovering who killed her. And yes, the premise of the novel requires you to take a pretty big leap, but once you embrace the totally bananas-bonkers conceit, it’s a bleakly entertaining journey.

3. The Heather Wells series by Meg Cabot

Size 12 and Ready to Rock by Meg Cabot

Not all mysteries need to be grim and gritty, even when there’s murder involved, so if you’re looking for something a bit lighter / cozier, I’d recommend the Heather Wells series, starting with Size 12 Is Not Fat. Heather is a former popstar turned Resident Advisor at a New York City college where the co-eds start to fall down elevator shafts at an alarming rate, prompting Heather to investigate whether there was foul play involved. Heather isn’t necessarily the best detective, but she is entertaining to follow as she doggedly pursues the facts. (Pro tip: Feel free to skip the lyrics heading each chapter from Heather’s pop star days. I think they’re intended to be kind of bad, but these are really bad.)

4. The Truants by Kate Weinberg

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

And back to dark academia. :) Another Secret History descendent, The Truants follows a young, impressionable student named Jess who becomes romantically enamored with a journalist and academically enamored with her professor. What follows is a tangle of lies, deceit, and murder, all told through an unreliable narrator who doesn’t fully understand herself or those around her.

5. In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead

In My Dreams I Hold A Knife by Ashley Winstead

…Or the one where a bunch of best friends have an uncomfortable reunion at their alma mater years after one of their friends was brutally murdered. They think they know what really happened, but do they…? Like the cliques in The Secret History and The Likeness, this novel explores a tight-knit group of elite students, and acts as a warning to the secrets and lies that can exist in this kind of group dynamic, while also simultaneously making you weirdly long to be part of an inseparable posse.

6. The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

Another Secret History homage, The Maidens follows a group of Greek-mythology-obsessed students who take their love of Dionysus just a little too far. (But only a little.) Therapist (and former student at the university) Mariana gets caught up on the campus chaos when a friend of her niece’s is murdered and discovers a group of students called the Maidens who are enamored with their charismatic professor, Edward Fosca. Mariana suspects Fosca may have something to do with the murders, but is she seeing things clearly? As Michaelides showed us with his first breakout novel, The Silent Patient, we can’t take any of the characters at face value.

7. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Finally, a group of elite students who aren’t obsessed with Greek mythology — they’re obsessed with Shakespeare instead! Oliver Marks is a highly trained thespian who has worked tirelessly with his tight-knit Shakespearean troupe to put on revered versions of the bard’s great plays. But you guessed it…one of them gets murdered, and it unravels a whole bunch of mysteries and secrets. All joking aside, this one was a really intriguing read that kept me guessing, and as a high school teacher desperately trying to get my students into Macbeth, it was refreshing to read about students who were so passionate about learning. What an ideal scenario…minus the murder of course. :)

8. The Austen University Mysteries

What’s that, you say? Shameless self-promotion? I couldn’t include a list of my favorite novels centering around university-set crimes without including my own novels that feature university-based crimes. In my books, no one is obsessed with any mythological or literary figures — but I myself am obsessed with Jane Austen, so I’ve transplanted all of her characters into one modern-day, university setting (Austen University) and thrown in some mystery.

What Happened on Box Hill by Elizabeth Gilliland

In Book One, What Happened on Box Hill, Caty Morland suspects that the accidental death of her roommate, Isabella, is not so accidental and decides to throw a dinner party with all of her top suspects. Caty might not be the best detective, but is she wrong about a murder being committed?

The Portraits of Pemberley by Elizabeth Gilliland

In Book Two, The Portraits of Pemberley (coming July 5th!!), Lizzy Bennet is accused of assaulting George Wickham and leaving him tied up and naked in the campus square. Lizzy risks expulsion until Darcy confesses to the crime — which is lucky for Lizzy, except she just can’t shake the feeling that Darcy didn’t do it.

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I hope you enjoyed this list of university themed mysteries. Are there any of your favorites I left out? Let me know in the comments!

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Elizabeth Gilliland Rands

Writer, Mom, Wife, English Instructor, Dr., Chocoholic. Co-founder of Bayou Wolf Press and the Detours Ahead podcast: www.bayouwolfpress.com