Universities and other institutions are fertile ground for stories of mystery and suspense. The potent mix of old, imposing buildings, esoteric volumes best left unstudied, and the power wielded by faculty who can make or break an academic career creates a thrilling formula.

“A venerable, cloistered university is among the last standing enclaves in our full-access world,” says Rupert Holmes, whose forthcoming novel Murder Your Employer (Avid Reader, Nov.) is set at an institution for students seeking an education in the fine art of murder. “To such privileged characters holding court in coveted faculty chambers or happily nested along fraternity or sorority row, it’s their world and we’re all just townies.”

PW spoke with authors and editors about their upcoming works exploring the lethal secrets and fraught power dynamics buried within the labyrinthine halls of higher education.

Deadly mentors

The powers-that-be who maintain control and dominion over old and venerated institutions sometimes safeguard a closetful of skeletons, and many new works of fiction are exploring abuses of authority within academia. In the November Atria release The Cloisters by Katy Hays (which PW’s review called an “accomplished debut”), an art history graduate student’s internship in museum curation delves into the arcane as her mentors reveal dangerous obsessions.

The museum is “a place of learning and discovery, where new doors are opened,” says Natalie Hallak, editor at Atria, “but it also can be a place of insidious power dynamics and buried histories, where obsession and secrets fester behind closed doors.”

Hays herself is fascinated by the idea of what we might do for the admiration of our intellectual mentors. “How is it possible that a rational person can so easily find themselves sucked in by superstitions, myths, or even a charismatic professor?” she asks. “What could you believe if the conditions were right?”

In Lauren Nossett’s debut novel, The Resemblance (a “scathing indictment of Greek life,” per PW’s review), out from Flatiron in November, the old-boys’ network of college fraternities is potentially responsible for covering up not just one murder, but a long history of death and abuse on campus. “There’s the buttoned-up scholarship of university life,” says Zachary Wagman, editorial director at Flatiron, “but then there’s the darkness that lies just behind it; the self-contained nature of living on a college campus can feel claustrophobic.”

What’s a little murder between friends?

Students who find themselves in desperate need of support networks as they navigate isolated, high-pressure environments can form fast friendships and intense bonds—sometimes too intense. In The Bequest, Joanna Margaret’s debut novel, Isabel Henley arrives in Scotland to pursue her PhD, only to find her adviser murdered and her undergrad friend kidnapped, setting her on a harrowing search for answers.

“The world of academia builds upon years of research, documents, thought,” says Luisa Smith, editor-in-chief at Scarlet, which is releasing the book in October. “It’s also rife with secrets, grudges, and abuses.”

Manipulation and poisonous secrets between friends feature prominently in Heather Darwent’s debut novel, The Things We Do to Our Friends, due out from Bantam in January. When Clare enrolls at the University of Edinburgh to close the circle on a traumatic past and reinvent herself, she falls in with the glamorous and magnetic Tabitha, who knows exactly how to use Clare’s secrets as leverage.

Ballantine Bantam Dell associate editor Jesse Shuman notes the importance to readers of the slow reveal of secrets. “We want Clare to feel accepted by this group of dangerous students,” he says, “but we also know that it risks the exposure of the secret she’s keeping.”

I know what you did last semester

Dark academia has a way of bringing mysteries full circle as the past demands a reckoning in the present. In Woman of the Year (Atria, Mar. 2023), Darcey Bell (whose novel A Simple Favor was adapted into a film by LionsGate) explores the ways in which the pressure built up during fraught school days can combust in the present day. Twenty years after a toxic triangle between friends Holly and Lorelei and a charming psychology professor ruined Holly’s life and career, a revenge plot spins out of control, threatening not just academic repercussions but fatal consequences.

“I’ve always been fascinated by so-called locked-room mysteries, and in a way academia is a locked room,” Bell says. “The students come and go, but the faculty and administration stay in a pretty closed system.”

Bleeding Heart Yard is a campus-set standalone by Elly Griffiths, best known for her Ruth Galloway mysteries. In the November Mariner release, which features “jaw-dropping red herrings, headbanging twists and turns, and Rashomon-like alternating narratives,” per PW’s starred review, police detective Cassie Fitzgerald has spent two decades being haunted by memories of a classmates’ death at the hands of her friends. At a reunion for the class of 1998, all of the trauma Cassie has tried so hard to repress threatens to burst forth as classmates begin dying once again. The subjectivity of memory suits itself exceptionally well to the cerebral twists of dark academia.

“You often know more than the characters do, because you are seeing the story from more angles,” says Nicole Angeloro, senior editor at Mariner, “but with that bit of extra knowledge comes added unease—who can you trust?”

Lillian Boyd is a writer and editor in Southern California.

Read more from out New Mysteries & Thrillers 2022–2023 feature:

Mountain of Evidence: PW Talks with Ausma Zehanat Khan
In Ausma Zehanat Khan's series-launching Blackwater Falls (Minotaur, Nov.), Det. Inaya Rahman investigates the small-town murder of a teenage Syrian refugee.

There Goes the Neighborhood: New Mysteries & Thrillers 2022–2023
New releases focus on the dark side of domesticity, the isolation of suburban life, and the danger that waits just down the street.