I find the campus to be a perfectly oppressive setting for a thriller. A campus thriller isn’t a traditional closed-room mystery, but it does share some tantalising similarities. No physical enclosure perhaps, but the bubble of the college seems to create a certain terrible claustrophobia, full of simmering discontent and narcissism – this leads to crimes that make for an addictive reading experience.
Here are just some of the things I enjoy about campus thrillers, and the books that shine in the genre.
The outside world invades…
I have to begin with The Secret History. Donna Tartt’s debut novel remains wildly popular three decades after its original release. Readers (myself included) are obsessed with the cult classic and admiring of its clever plot peppered with haughtily intellectual characters that feel incredibly real. The characters are, of course, brilliant in The Secret History, but I also think some of the excruciating tension is possible because of the setting.
Before the crime, the campus (and in particular the revered Classics class) seems totally separate from society. The group’s sequestered tutorial spot, is welcoming, decadent, luxurious. The outside world is presented as unpalatable, and the students are happy to ignore it. Then the outside ends up infiltrating, and when the seal breaks between the campus and the real world, this creates thrilling tension.
Friendships and relationships
Enter the tragic misfit – the protagonist. Perhaps they want to be part of a compelling circle of friends, and toxic bonds abound. Often the characters are lonely, or at least yearning for something they can’t quite put their finger on, but it isn’t always about friendship when it comes to the campus thriller. Take Loner by Teddy Wayne, where the obsessive narrator becomes confused about his relationship with a female student, resulting in a deeply fascinating and uncomfortable read.
There’s a similar unreciprocated relationship in Engleby by Sebastian Faulks. This dark literary thriller takes place at an English university and revolves around the disappearance of a vivacious theatre student. The first-person narration is comparable to Loner, and works perfectly to show the narrator’s spiralling preoccupations. It’s impossible to look away.
The past and present
Often in campus thrillers, the past and the present form two connecting narratives. The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn does this to excellent effect, as the book explores how the graduates (who are all delightfully unlikable) interact with the campus site in two different time periods. The crimes of the past come to the forefront as the students attend an ill-fated reunion, and you see how their personalities have changed, but the toxicity of their relationships endures…
Another campus thriller that moves between the past and present is The Maidens by Alex Michaelides. In the Uk, the campus is often Oxford and Cambridge – privileged settings full of rich history. The Maidens is one such example, and it moves at a breakneck pace. The book follows the fortune of Mariana Andros, who ends up investigating a host of shocking murders. Here, the setting is the present day, on the scenic quads of Cambridge campus, but flashbacks from the past in Greece add intrigue. Michaelides uses the rich academic setting to his advantage and throws in some absolutely wild twists.
The school setting
Campus thrillers aren’t all set in colleges and universities, and sometimes they skew a little younger. A school can be a fascinating, creepy setting, and the school as campus forms the background for many novels. Packed to the brim with nostalgia, The Secret Place by Tana French explores a murder that takes place in an elite private institution, and the monied nature of the school is central to the plot. French gives so much detail into the knotty way cliques work, which I love.
Recently, I read another fantastic school-based thriller – Madam by Phoebe Wynne. Things are not as they seem at an imposing Scottish school, far away from prying eyes, where a new teacher explores the awful agenda that lies at the heart of the institution. It’s a thrilling study of exploitation.
The changing genre
I love to discover a book that has a fresh twist, like Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian. This book takes an exceptionally pacy form, as a group of psychopaths come together for a clinical study at a college. Quickly, this leads to murder, and I found it to be a brilliant page-turner with plenty of twists.
Next year sees the publication of Rebecca Makkai’s gripping literary thriller, I Have Some Questions for You. The narrator, Bodie, looks back at a crime where the perpetrator may be wrongly imprisoned. This book has a campus setting paired with the addition of a true crime podcast, which gives the book a really modern feel. It intrigued me to learn that Makkai still lives in the same school grounds she went to as a child, and perhaps this is why she’s so able to create an environment that’s completely immersive.
I set my own book, The Things We Do to Our Friends, in Edinburgh, where the university grounds are embedded in the city centre. The intention was to make the place seem impressive at first, but gradually the capital becomes deeply oppressive for my narrator, Clare – she’s the classic campus thriller misfit – as her life spirals out of control.
So, what’s the future of a campus novel? The genre continues to evolve, and it remains a welcoming place for morally-grey characters to reside, and perhaps commit some terrible crimes. Personally, I love them, and I have many more delectable campus thrillers on my TBR list… I look forward to devouring them.