Anyone who’s lived in a college dorm–especially a girls’ dorm–will recognize the backdrop of Edith Skom’s newest mystery, The Charles Dickens Murders. Set in the 1940s at the University of Chicago and in the present at “Midwestern University,” a college just outside Chicago (which is not necessarily a certain school in Evanston, Skom says coyly), the novel features more than one Dickensian coincidence.
At the U. of C. in the 40s, the girls of Dall Hall, specifically the “fourth floor gang,” are deeply connected in a web of odd intimacies, inside jokes, cliques, petty feuds, and intense competition for the tenuous loyalty of this or that boy. They talk all night, dress each other up, borrow each other’s clothes. They’re family, and in many ways a dysfunctional one.
“I wanted to contrast dorm life today with dorm life then, and to use the dorm setting to bring together a whole mix of different girls that might not have met otherwise,” Skom says. “It’s very valuable for young women to be together and learn from each other without the tension that gets in the way when boys are around.”
The novel’s star player, Beth Austin, is a Midwestern University literature professor whose mother, Laurie, was one of the Dall girls. One leisurely afternoon mother and daughter begin reminiscing, and the action is set: our plucky amateur detective is off in pursuit of the solution to a long-unsolved murder of one of the Dall girls and the suspicious recent death of another. Austin’s–and Skom’s–examination of the dormitory uncovers the repercussions of physical beauty and how a little male attention can result in emotional explosions that send sisterhood right out the window.
Skom, like Austin, is a professor. She teaches creative writing at Northwestern and holds a PhD in Victorian literature. Her first mystery, about a student who is killed after writing a prize-winning essay on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was taken on by a small publisher and had modest sales until it was picked up by Dell in paperback, where The Mark Twain Murders enjoyed much more success. She’s also published The George Eliot Murders, in which Professor Austin finds Middlemarch helpful in solving a crime.
Skom initially considered setting the action of her latest mystery against Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is famous for remaining unfinished–and is therefore an unsolved mystery. But she says she preferred Bleak House. “Like most good novels, Bleak House is a mystery,” she says. “Even Pride and Prejudice is a mystery. Authors conceal relevant information and build suspense.”
But how does Charles Dickens come into play with a bunch of college coeds? As Professor Austin begins the semester teaching a class on the writer, she uses the details of his characters to draw conclusions about motives in the Dall case. Her students’ feelings about Lady Dedlock, a beautiful, tragic figure in Bleak House, spark Austin’s curiosity, sending her on an intuitive jaunt that leads to the solution.
In The Charles Dickens Murders, Beth Austin’s author friend, Link, gives a reading at “Water Tower Books,” perhaps a fictional version of Rizzoli Bookstore at Water Tower Place, 835 N. Michigan (312-642-3500). Skom will give a reading there Thursday, December 10, at 6. Admission is free. –Melissa King
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Edith Skom photo by Eugene Zakusilo.