Tuesday Night Club: An Academic Miscellany

Our Tuesday Night group of fiction fans has chosen schools and universities as our theme for June. 

Thanks to
Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo. She has also kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.

Academic logo
Here are the week 1 links.
And here are week 2 links.
And the week 3 links.

If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.

I'm looking at a couple of different aspects of academic mysteries this week.... 

1) After last week’s Nicholas Blake, I thought I’d look at another obscure academic mystery: Robert Robinson’s Landscape with Dead Dons, first published 1956, thinking it would give me another full, single-book entry.

Robert Robinson is better known (remembered – he died in 2011) in the UK as a twinkly-eyed, satirical, witty and sometimes caustic broadcaster. He presented all kinds of TV and radio shows, including many quiz shows, and might be thought of as an early Stephen Fry. He was in his late 20s when the book was published, and was already working at the BBC, and may have thought this would be a nice sideline – but it was his only crime novel.

Although I was glad to reread it, it’s not that great. It’s full of very broad satire of Oxford ways - the characters all have silly names – and makes you see that Edmund Crispin was really rather restrained in this area. He makes a nice point of having an Oxford College of the day being a closed circle – because of the porter, and the secure gates and walls, no-one could have got in or out unnoticed, so there is a limited group of suspects. The reports of the academics’ conversations did not entertain, or even feel that real. The treatment of women was stupid and tiresome.

However, there was one aspect of the book which was both clever and original, but can’t mention without spoilering… You’d have to read it.

dorm room

2) Student rooms. There was one described in the Robinson book:
Autumn found himself in a room similar to a hundred other such rooms in the University. The wallpaper was yellow, there were two old-fashioned armchairs which had been reupholstered in a rather stern shade of maroon, and a sofa the same. There were a dark brown sideboard, two stained tables (one round, one square), and a huge deal bookcase not quite full of books/ Dirty teacups from the previous day were crowded into the fireplace, and on a plate sat the remains of several Eccles cakes. Membership cards of various University clubs stood on the mantelpiece and disposed amongst them were a quart pot, a photograph of a girl, some pipes, a small plaque which read DEFENSE DE SE PENCHER AU DEHORS, and apiece of 18th century porcelain. On the walls were three or four pictures.

student room

And it was nice to compare with this description from last week’s book of a female student’s room – this time in the USA:
The sitting room presented the chaotic appearance of many students’ apartments: books, pamphlets and cushions on the floor, the table hastily cleared for a meal, tattered curtains which had once been scarlet. In this shabby, slovenly nest, Sukie stood out with almost preternatural clarity of definition: a dark-blue jersey and fawn skirt set off the lines of her small, trim body; her face, for all the uncertain look on it, was vivid as a camellia. Artemis, he thought; no, Vergil’s warrior maiden, Camilla. “Would you like some Dubonnet?” “That would be nice.” She took a sticky bottle and two glasses from a cupboard.

3) Remembering a real favourite academic novel – and probably the only such I have read with an Australian setting. I blogged on it when Barnard died a few years back, so have dug out part of my post from then:

Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard

published 1977  

[The book is set in a remote Australian university town: Alice is a guest at a party given by the Wickhams for a visiting academic]

At this moment Lucy Wickham caught out of the corner of her eye the figure of Alice O’Brien, heading for the drinks corner, and maliciously decided to frustrate her. ‘Alice’ she said, gazing at her loud scarlet and orange frock of unfashionable length, and her peeling face with the too blatant make-up.

‘So glad you could come. How nice you look tonight. But then you always look so nice, of course.’

Alice gritted her teeth and wondered whether to hand Lucy the empty glass and demand a refill. No. Perhaps later. Or perhaps when she became permanent.


commentary: Robert Barnard wrote a large number of popular crime novels, and this was one of the first (the chronology is vague - in some sources this one is dated to 1974, but the copyright page gives 1977). It is a hilarious academic mystery, with sustained satirical passages that make you surprised it isn’t better known – Barnard mentions Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (on the blog here and here), and this book is at that level, while Alice, above, is a nicer version of Jim's Margaret.

Some of the humour is broad and not at all politically correct: characters are shown as snobbish, misogynist and elitist, and quite horrendously racist – but you couldn’t doubt that it is intended as fierce satire. You also couldn’t doubt that Barnard worked in academia: his vicious descriptions of academic infighting, the canapés at the party above, and the contents of an English lecturer’s bookshelves, all suggest straight transcriptions from life. You would guess he had a great time writing it, with its Macbeth moments, with the studies of ‘the poetry of George Eliot and the plays of Dickens’ and, above all, with the visiting academic who clearly remembers meeting Jane Austen (“charming woman… most witty”) before she died, although she was very ill.

It is a short, very clever book: in the last page or two you wonder how he can end it: and then the final sentence rounds it off with sudden brilliance.

As if Old Goat  and the other novels weren’t enough, Robert Barnard also wrote one of the very best studies of Agatha Christie’s work: the 1980 A Talent to Deceive, a book that any true Christie fan can return to again and again – it is clever, funny and perceptive, and it is unlikely ever to be bettered.


The party-ready, on-trend women are from fashion magazines of 1977.

The first student room is from a Bell Telephone advert for phones in dorm rooms - it’s listed as 1922, but plainly isn’t – other evidence suggests around 1966. (Phones in rooms SO much something you wouldn’t be having in a UK room for a long time later than that - in most places they were probably about to arrive when they were overtaken by mobiles).

The other room is a 1981 student room from the well-loved LSE library archive, which I said last week is a great resource for pictures of how students actually looked in the past.


  1. Ordering now... Barnard on Christie? To me it was all "here's why Christie isn't as bad as you think she is" and "why Christie's two-dimensional characters and simple prose are really a clever ploy". With friends like these!

    1. We have to agree to disagree! I really liked his pereceptions and overviews, even when not agreeing with every word.

  2. Barnard really did do some good books, Moira - glad you mentioned him here. And I think what's struck me most about your post is the different ways in which authors look at academia and the academic life. In some ways, academia has changed a lot over the years; in some ways not very much.

    1. Academic mysteries are a great way at looking at life, now I think of it, a snapshot of young people and older professionals - I jokingly said I would do it as a PhD, but I'm sure there is one for someone!

  3. Moira, I have read a couple of Robert Barnard's novels, including "A Stranger in the Family." He was a master of crafting suspenseful and rather disturbing stories around families.

    1. I don't think I've read that one, Prashant, I will make a note. That's a very good description of his writing.

  4. Clearly got to read this Barnard, Moira. Perhaps I'll give up choosing books for myself. I could just read whatever you write about on the blog and save myself the trouble.

    1. You are kind! I'm sure I should be reading more serious stuff, or doing something useful with my life...
      But the Barnard is good, and I think as an academic you will very much appreciate it.

  5. I read the Robinson book years ago, and always felt that the problem was that you could practically hear him speaking every line. He had this terrible, arch style of talking that always made my teeth itch. At his peak he used to be the host of a radio show called STOP THE WEEK, where a bunch of people just like him chattered inanely for 45 minutes (or until the listener could stand it no more and changed the channel). The difference between him and Crispin was that Crispin had a genuine talent. It's quite telling that the latter wrote his first book because he admired John Dickson Carr enormously and wanted to emulate him, whilst Robinson merely wanted to keep up with a colleague who had also been published. Robinson was very intellligent without being an especially talented writer.

    Barnard is someone that I've read and enjoyed, without getting anywhere near reading everything that he produced. Although other crime authors have been rediscovered and put back into print, he remains unfairly neglected. During his lifetime he often didn't have paperback versions of his books printed in the UK. He was very fond of satire as well as crime, and I suspect that a lot of it has dated very little. Time for his books to stage a comeback!

    1. Yes. Stop The Week - remember how it was semi-scripted and semi-improvised? The think I hated most was the transitions from general chat to RR reading out 'AS I was walking down the street last week, I thought...' and you could tell from the first word we were back on script.
      Barnard was so prolific - and some of his titles seem so close to each other that I'm never sure it's the same book. There are few authors for whom I have such a varied reaction - loved some, found others bad. Always looking for reco's for him, and the last two people tipped me off on (Scandal in Belgravia, Stranger in the Grass) were both excellent.

  6. Moira: I would like to add Another Margaret by Janice Macdonald. It is a clever Western Canadian university mystery with Miranda "Randy" Craig coping with the frustrations of life as a grad student as part of the book. Her modest apartment sounded like many I was in while at university. The link is http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.ca/2015/09/another-margaret-by-janice-macdonald.html

    1. Oh yes! I've been meaning to read that one ever since you recommended it. I should have read it for this meme...

    2. & Bev has added a link to your post in the overall list http://myreadersblock.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/tuesday-night-bloggers-academic-top.html

  7. I particularly enjoyed DEAD DONS actually but have yet to try the Barnard - thanks Moira - sadly none match my experiences at LSE and UEA ...

    1. Ah well, we who went to newer universities can't expect a world of comic porters, twinkly eyed college servants and ancient gargoyles at the library building. (and yes, the gargoyles might be human)

  8. Well at least it's not bloody Agatha

  9. I liked Prashant's description of Barnard's books also. I have liked his standalone books best but have read a good number of his series books also.


Post a Comment