7 Thrillers About the Dark Side of Academia

Murder! Intrigue! Student debt! Whodunnits set on ivy-covered college campuses

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
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Campus novels are nostalgic. The historic brick buildings, the quiet libraries, and the green quads create a romantic setting, one that’s usually marked with autumnal leaves, thick sheaves of snow, or hints of flowers depending on the semester. The students and professors that populate the campus are contained and connected, if not by location by their shared purpose of learning. The setting and cast of characters are meant to evoke a familiar memory, whether it’s our own college experience or the idealized versions we’ve seen represented in media.

This nostalgia is also one reason why I love campus novels so much. I’m partial to books that feature colleges, because I enjoyed it much more than high school and I went to a school with a campus fit for idealizing: a small college in the northeast with brick buildings and quiet libraries and green quads. 

But the most enjoyable campus novels, for me, balance this nostalgia with criticism of the system of higher education they’re portraying. That criticism is clearest in campus thrillers. The contained setting becomes claustrophobic. The loosely connected community brings up more questions of motive than a feeling of comfort. And as the suspense picks up, it’s the darker elements of higher education that begin to subvert the nostalgic setting—the student debt, the staff that go unnoticed, the classist systems, the power disparity rife for exploitation.

Here are eight excellent thrillers that use the college campus as a setting to explore the darker side of academia, leverage the competitive atmosphere, and present a compactly contained mystery that keeps you reading.

In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead

Jessica Miller is an overachiever, and she didn’t let a tragic end to her senior year or a devastating breakup with her college sweetheart stop that. She moved to New York City after graduation, became the youngest partner at her consulting firm, and made enough money to pay off her student loans and convince herself—if not her dad—that she shouldn’t keep mourning the fact that she didn’t get into an ivy league and instead went to the number-sixteen school in the country, Duquette.

When Jessica returns to campus for her reunion, though, this hard-earned facade of success doesn’t distract her classmates. Instead, her group of former friends, the self-declared East House Seven, find themselves forced into retreading the past, reliving their complicated relationships, and, ultimately, uncovering the truth about who murdered one of their own.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House is a prestigious private college that has graduated senators, professors, business owners, and more. An old house tucked in the countryside in Pennsylvania, the remote campus is consuming—and the school likes it that way. Even the famous alumni keep any details of their three years at the school to themselves. 

When Ines arrives at Catherine House for her first year, she’s grateful for the escape from the outside world, the parties with school-sanctioned wine, and the free tuition that every Catherine student enjoys. But soon Ines begins to wonder how many of her other classmates are also running from their pasts, and she becomes determined to find out what the mysterious school is really teaching students.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

This book is narrated by Jess Walker, who attends university in East Anglia to study with Lorna Clay, an American academic whose book The Truants was a crossover academic and trade success. Jess becomes fast friends with Georgie, a wealthy classmate, Alec, a journalist from South Africa, and Nick, another classmate who quickly confesses his feelings for Jess. Despite these friends, it’s Lorna that Jess yearns for approval from, both academically and personally.

The desolate concrete of the campus and the cold, grey skies create the backdrop for this eerie thriller. Lorna’s book The Truants argues that great artists need to break themselves down in order to create. Both Jess and Georgie take Lorna’s class on Agatha Christie, with an emphasis on Christie’s never-explained disappearance. Jess soon learns that Lorna, too, is running from a scandal—but she doesn’t learn this before she and her friends become entangled with this professor in a series of complicated relationships that end in tragedy.

The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Like In My Dreams I Hold a Knife, this thriller centers on a college reunion that dredges up old feelings of inadequacy, competition, and, of course, guilt. Ambrosia Turner is reluctant to attend her 10-year reunion at Wesleyan, but she relents after receiving letters from her former friend Sloan Sullivan, or Sully. Although they haven’t talked in years, Ambrosia is touched, and not a little concerned, that Sully has reached out this way. In chapters alternating between the present day and the beginning of college, we learn why Ambrosia is uncomfortable returning to a campus where she felt awkward and out of place, how her fiery friendship with Sully made her feel like she finally fit in, and what tragic ending to their friendship kept them away from each other and campus—until now. 

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

This book opens with conviction: Mariana Andros knows Edward Fosco is a murderer, but she isn’t sure how to prove it. Mariana is a therapist grieving her late husband Sebastian when her niece Zoe, a student at her alma mater Cambridge, calls with terrible news: Zoe’s friend has been murdered. Mariana goes to stay with her niece, and while she’s there meets the American professor Edward Fosco who is too close to a group of students, all young women, he affectionately calls the maidens—a group that Zoe’s late friend belonged to.  

Taking matters into her own hands, Mariana races around campus, talking to both her old professors who are hesitant to break traditions and members of staff who see everything and resent the students, as she uncovers more than one mystery. 

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

This Shakespeare-inspired thriller opens when Oliver Marks is released from jail after ten years, and he finally tells Detective Colborne what really happened on campus at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory with his group of seven close-knit, competitive friends.

The book is organized into five acts. Each opens as Oliver walks around campus for the first time since his arrest, then scenes of his story follow. Oliver and his friends, who easily slip into Shakespeare passages or respond with quotes from his more famous works, grow closer over the years as their other, less successful classmates are cut from the program. By senior year, the group of seven with roles strictly defined becomes claustrophobic, and the tension becomes dangerous—and Oliver finally shares who snapped. 

Black Chalk by Christopher Yates

The narrator of this novel lives a solitary, regimented life in New York City, though he spends most of his time indoors and, over the course of the novel, documenting the story of his time at Oxford. In the fall term of their first year, the narrator and five other students started a game. The rules started out simple: Complete a dare at each level or face a consequence. But as the game evolves and complicates, the dare and consequences become increasingly taxing on the group—until eventually the results become tragic.  

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