Book Corner: Back to School with Campus Thrillers

The campus, or academic, novel is just what it sounds like: a book whose main action is set on or around a college campus. Academia in fiction is rife with the opportunity to explore a diversity of themes such as coming of age, romantic love and friendship, jealousy, honesty, and deceit. Some of these themes you may identify with from your own college or high school experience. It was a few (ahem) years ago for me, but many of the experiences I had in college are still vivid in my mind. 

Thankfully, murder and mystery are two experiences to which I cannot relate. However, I like to take it upon myself to find a theme (college life) and add a sinister twist, just to make things interesting. So while back-to-school reading typically evokes images of Ramona Quimby’s misadventures in school and Judy Blume’s “Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing,” both of which I loved as a child, I now present the darker side of academia for grown-ups to enjoy:

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
Two Princeton students, Tom Sullivan and Paul Harris, are close to solving the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Renaissance text whose hypnotic power has confounded scholars for centuries. As their deadline looms, Tom and Paul discover proof of a hidden crypt that has been concealed in the pages of the obscure text. While diving into the strange, violent world of the Hyperotomachia, Princeton’s campus is upended by the murder of a longtime student of the text.

The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman
Tess has buried her past and is now the wife of a professor at Haywood, an elite boarding school, where she also teaches. Her teenage son, Rudy, long plagued by dark moods, seems to be thriving. Then Tess gets a 2:50 a.m. text from Rudy, asking for help. Rudy is soaked and shivering, with a dark stain on his shirt, when Tess picks him up. Then Rudy’s girlfriend, Lila, is found dead on the beach near where Tess picked up Rudy. As the investigation escalates, both Tess’s son and husband become persons of interest. Tess soon realizes that Lila’s death is not the first at Haywood, and there is more to the story than an accidental death.

Dominance by Will Lavender
In 1994, Alex Shipley attended a controversial night class at Jasper College, taught by brilliant professor Richard Aldiss from his prison cell, where he was serving a life term for murdering two of his female students. Alex unravels an elaborate literary hoax that acquits the teacher, and that seems to be the end of it. Seventeen years later, Alex is a literature professor at Harvard, but is then called back to Jasper College because someone is killing her former classmates.

Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Scottoline Serritella
Cady Archer arrives on Harvard’s campus seeking answers about her brother Eric, a schizophrenic genius who leapt from his dorm room window the year before. Having grown up under his shadow, Cady adored Eric nonetheless, even as his mind and behavior grew unstable. While juggling academic life, Cady begins to investigate her brother’s life on campus. What caused Eric’s descent into paranoia, delusions, and imagined enemies? Then, as her suspicions grow, Cady begins to hear voices herself: three ghosts that walked the halls of Harvard, each from a different time period. Does Cady share Eric’s illness, or are these voices real? If she listens to them, will they lead to the truth about her brother, or will they cause her own destruction?

The Ancient Nine by Ian K. Smith
Spenser Collins and Dalton Winthrop become friends once Spenser is recruited to the Delphic Club, an exclusive, all-male Harvard club founded in the 19th century. Dalton knows the Delphic doesn’t offer memberships to just anyone. His great-uncle is one of their oldest members and freely shared stories of the club’s rituals. But his uncle is cryptic about the Ancient Nine, a group of incognito, yet powerful albums that protect the club’s oldest secrets, including the disappearance of a student from the club’s mansion in 1927. As the two friends investigate, the more questions that come up, further intertwining the story of the Delphic, the disappearance, and the Ancient Nine—and unexpectedly endangering their own lives.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
One of the most well-known campus novels, Tartt’s psychological thriller builds suspense with subtlety. Under the influence of charismatic classics professor Julian Morrow, a disparate group of students is driven to an obsession with experiencing divine madness, a state of frenzied, unpredictable behavior fueled by religious pursuits. Their quest to enter this state leads the group to slip beyond the boundaries of normal morality, devolving from obsession to corruption, then to murder and suicide.

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
Yates’ background in puzzle writing is evident in this clever thriller that will keep you guessing through the last page. One game. Six students. Five survivors. It was meant to be a silly game of childish dares played by six friends in their first year at Oxford. Then the stakes grew higher, the dares more personal and humiliating, ending in a barbaric struggle with catastrophic results. Fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for one last round.

For safe, non-mysterious back-to-school resources for adults, children, and teens, visit

Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.