Add together sprawling, secluded campuses with intensely competitive entry requirements and coveted programs full of cutthroat students who would do anything to get to the top despite financial, familial, or friend-making hardships and what do you get? The dark academia genre, especially the even better niche of dark academic mystery novels!
What I love most about the dark academia genre is how full it is of the distinct nostalgia of growing up and entering academic settings where fierce friendships bloom in the midst of too much homework and difficult courses. The excitement of what’s to come if only you can make it through the course or test or degree. The dream of what could be if only you pushed yourself harder, took on another extracurricular, networked with another professor. The magic of friendships forged in these intense settings, united by the common enemy of failure and delighting in having someone to study with, compete against, and escape from the drudgery with during lunch and free period.
It’s clear to see how these settings can breed tragic and thrilling outcomes. Students are so desperate to keep their place in these programs promising a bright future that they’re willing to do anything to get it. Then there are the professors who worked too hard for some kid to ruin everything for them by exposing their long-kept secrets. The competitive atmosphere, the self-contained aspect of dark academia, and the financial and personal cost of losing it all can breed desperation.
And you can see that desperation firsthand in these eight dark academic mystery novels!
The Best Dark Academic Mystery Novels
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
Ten years ago, Oliver Marks and six of his friends were attending a prestigious arts college studying Shakespeare. But with intense acting coaches forcing them to expose their insecurities, competitions for roles in their big production, and interpersonal drama, their friendships veer into dangerous territory, landing Oliver in prison for a murder. But now he’s out free, and the detective who initially investigated the case comes back to find out what really happened a decade ago.
A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari
Saffron Everleigh has the coveted position as Dr. Maxwell’s biology research assistant at University College in London, and also happens to be the only woman in the department in 1923. At a dinner party with her coworkers, the wife of Dr. Henry collapses, but was it a case of poisoning or just an allergic reaction? When police eyes turn to Dr. Maxwell because of a recent spat between him and Dr. Henry, Saffron is determined to clear her mentor before she loses her hard-won position in such a male-dominated space.
In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead
A decade after graduating from the renowned Duquette University, Jessica Miller returns for their class’s reunion, hoping they all see her as the perfect person she always wanted to be. But with the murder of her roommate haunting her and her old friends, forbidden relationships, and the cutthroat attitudes of the past back in the forefront, the reunion might not be so joyous after all.
Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
After the death of a fellow student in the botany lab, Nell Barber is expelled from her PhD program where she was studying poisons. Obsessed with her mentor, she can’t let what she had slip away from her. She crowds her apartment with plants to study, dictating what she finds and the story of what happened in that lab in notebooks to her mentor, Joan. Hex is an exploration of devotion and what it can drive us to do.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
Ines, isolated and off the rails, jumps at the free tuition, room and board, and amenities of the prestigious Catherine House school that produces bigwigs and household names in spades. There, she’s not allowed to contact anyone from the outside world, only focus on her courses. But when her roommate, Baby, dies, Ines is left wondering what happened and why the school seems so determined to get her to stop asking questions.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
After years of hard work and navigating the racism rampant at their school, Chiamaka and Devon are selected as head boy and girl at Niveus Private Academy. But their status makes them a target of Ace, an anonymous account that posts their private photos and secrets for the world to see. The two must team up to take down Ace before the messages become dangerous for them both.
The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
Mariana is a group therapist grieving over the loss of her husband. When her niece’s best friend dies while attending Cambridge University, Mariana returns to the campus to help. A secret society of female students, The Maidens, and a suspicion that Greek Tragedy processor Edward Fosca is the cause of the girl’s death collide, compelling Mariana to do some digging herself. But ancient traditions lie deep, and getting access into secret societies isn’t always the safest, especially when lives are at stake.
The Truants by Kate Weinberg
Jess leaves her family behind to pursue a degree at the University of Esat Anglia, studying Agatha Christie under her idol and English professor, Lorna Clay. There, she becomes obsessed with a journalist, Alec, despite his attachment to her new friend, Georgie. As the relationships between the students in the program get more and more complicated, tensions rise and Lorna Clay’s argument that artists must destroy their personal lives to create something great might just come true for them all.
In the mood for more dark academia? Check out these 10 queer dark academia novels or these new dark academia YA novels that came out in 2022!
Or, if you’re interested in something more specific, like sub-genres as specific as dark academic mystery novels, check out Book Riot’s Tailored Book Recommendation (TBR) service!
It’s easy: you fill out a survey with your reading habits, preferences, likes and dislikes, and anything you’re in the mood for (as specific or as vague as you like) and a professional bibliologist will recommend three novels suited to your taste! With two options for your recommendations: an email with the three recommendations or the three recommendations sent to you via the mail, there are options for everyone!