Madness on Campus
Mystery Scene|Summer #168 2021
Helen Eustis’ The Horizontal Man
Benjamin Welton

Those of us who have passed through the groves of academe all know a professor like the doomed Kevin Boyle in Helen Eustis’s 1946 novel, The Horizontal Man. A professor of English and a middling poet at Connecticut’s all-female Hollymount College, Boyle’s true passion is lasciviousness. Boyle is well known as the campus Don Juan, so when he winds up dead in his apartment with a nasty gash on his forehead, the rumor mill begins speculating about which one of the professor’s many lovers was responsible for the murder.

The Horizontal Man, which was reprinted in 2020 by Library of America with a splendid introduction from mystery wunderkind Charles Finch, is a lot of things at once: a cozy mystery with a whiff of the locked-room conundrum, a campus thriller featuring an assortment of oddballs, and a black comedy about the type of neurotic and nervous souls who find succor in academia. Some of these lost and awkward souls include Leonard Marks, a lickspittle extraordinaire who practically worships the handsome rake Boyle; the publicity-obsessed President Bainbridge; the tortured, but brilliant Professor George Hungerford; and the smart, independent proto-feminist Freda Cramm. And these are just the teachers. The students are out-there, too! There’s Molly Morrison, the ward of a psychiatric hospital and the coed that everyone suspects of Boyle’s murder; Honey Sacheveral, the Southern belle with a profound thirst for Alexanders; and the frumpish Kate Innes, whose intellect and doggish determination helps New York City newsman Jack Donnelly to solve the case.

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