Annie Seymour, the reporter-protagonist of Karen Olson’s first New Haven mystery novel, describes her thickening plot as “Yalies fucking with their lives and the lives of those around them.” It’s a common story. But our heroine doesn’t work for YDN Scene, and the story told in Sacred Cows isn’t your average dorm-room dispute: among its players are a seedy executive, an escort service named “Come Together,” and a stark naked, very dead Yale student on High Street. Even if her summary isn’t exactly newspaper copy, the reporter is right—“This would become one helluva made-for-TV movie.”
For Olson, a New Haven native and former Register reporter, it has become something just as exciting: the backbone of an award-winning mystery novel set in her hometown. Olson’s series—three books, another forthcoming—follows a middle-aged beat reporter at the fictional New Haven Herald as she solves crimes and complains about her expanding waistline, in the shadow of Yale’s spires and gargoyles. The series mixes in just enough feminine anxiety (“I pulled the little black dress out of the laundry basket, but even if it had been clean, I’d had too much pizza and Mexican food in the last couple of days to make it work for me”) and romance (“He was looking so damn good, his blue eyes twinkling, his biceps bulging as he shrugged out of his jacket”) to soften its gritty crime drama for a broader demographic. The books have sold well; since 2005, Olson has released a new episode each year, following the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award-winning Sacred Cows with 2006’s Secondhand Smoke and 2007’s Dead the Day. Shot Girl is due out this fall.
Central to the series’ appeal is the character of Annie Seymour, a foul-mouthed bachelorette who can get mugged one minute, extol the virtues of her fleece bathrobe the next, and sum it up with a Bridget Jonesian lament of sexual frustration: “I liked the way it felt on my skin, and I wondered how I could be horny after being beaten up, but I was.” But the series aims to violate more than the quickly-eroding stranglehold men have maintained on the mystery novel since The Maltese Falcon. It upends another traditional expectation: that New Haven is nothing more than the home of Yale. The novels in the series showcase the Elm City as a community apart from its collegiate ties. Each book takes place in a different region of New Haven. Secondhand Smoke deals with arson in Wooster Square, while Dead of the Day tackles illegal immigration in Fair Haven. Sacred Cows is, thus far, the only novel to spotlight the ivory tower.
And spotlight Yale it does. In her quest to discover who murdered student-turned-escort Melissa Peabody, Seymour takes coffee at Atticus, “a small bookstore with a fabulous coffee bar and wonderful muffins and sandwiches,” berates her coworkers for ordering Domino’s instead of Sally’s, and walks across Cross-Campus, Old Campus, and the Saybrook courtyards. She interrogates the registrar to no avail, has conversations with eyebrow-pierced students in coffee shops, and, in more than one scene, relies on the kindness and chivalry of a “friendly Asian kid.” Before it is all over, two Yalies are dead—one bludgeoned in the head by a small Buddha statue, the other stabbed scores of times on the torso and legs. They are the victims of an escort service, cocaine, jealous friends, and City Hall intrigue.
Just a day in the life.
What is it about Yale that encourages such portraits? Public fascination with Elis runs deep: From Chloe Does Yale to The Skulls to Porn and Chicken, middlebrow pop-culture has delighted in sexualizing, endangering, or exterminating the Bulldog. If mass media is any indication, we either like to see Yalies getting offed or getting it on. In Sacred Cows, Olson provides both: Melissa Peabody, an ultra-rich legacy type, and Allison Sanders, a scholarship student, get involved in a seedy escort service that takes them off campus, into the beds of wealthy young crooks, and eventually to their deaths. Peabody falls at the hands of a jealous roommate, while Sanders is dispatched by a more conventional criminal. Seymour’s efforts to solve the case land her in the middle of campus.
The book is unique among Olson’s novels because it deliberately engages Yale students as representatives of an ongoing town-gown dynamic. In the other two books, Yale is a removed island whose opulence serves mostly as a foil to local affairs. New Haven is the city of the Wooster mob, Fair Haven gangs, and illegal immigration. But in Sacred Cows, university students are the plot’s fodder, propelling the narrative through their own criminal and sexual endeavors. Students are the ones getting killed; students are the ones doing the killing.
If a book like Chloe is any indication, it’s a genius marketing move. It’s no secret that people want to see the Ivory Tower sullied. Sex and violence in the Ivy League sell because they are things ostensibly outside the privileged gates of academia: as literal matters of life and death, they embody the most basic human acts. Readers revel in highly educated raunch for the same reasons dozens of Yale parents call their children worried sick during Sex Week: they didn’t think the kids had it in them. A book like Sacred Cows levels the playing field. Even your bright nephew could be a killer.
f the Yalies in Sacred Cows come off like a bunch of murderous, coke-addled prostitutes, the city of New Haven doesn’t always fare much better. The town is overrun by corrupt City Hall politicians with coteries of armed henchmen. The publisher of the newspaper is involved in a scam. Annie gets threatening notes, is mugged, held at knife-point, and shot at. A fat man named Hickey tries to convince her to join the escort service. Annie notes how “on one block, the Gothic buildings of Yale towered over the street, but on the next, the neighborhood started getting seedy.” She reminds herself not to walk certain areas at night.
The Elm City surrounding Yale is, as Olson puts it in Dead of the Day, “those other neighborhoods inNew Haven, where shootings are just a matter of course, routine for the patrol cops, a three-inch police blotter.” Nonetheless, just as she opposes the notion that New Haven is nothing but a home for Yale, she won’t succumb to the town’s reputation for unchecked crime. In Sacred Cows, as Seymour walks down Chapel Street looking at the decorative bovines that give the novel its name (and its lead character an excuse to say “Fuck the Cows” as often as possible), she notes that “even though New Haven offered great theater, restaurants, nightlife, and shopping, there was still a large contingent out there in the suburbs who thought they’d become crime victims if they crossed the city line.”
The characterization of New Haven in Olson’s novels is loosely based on the reality of the city and heavily influenced by its mystery-novel pedigree. Given its genre, one that demands at least a little bit of criminal intrigue—a “whodunit” requires something to be done—Olson’s choice of setting doesn’t necessarily demonize the Elm City, but she walks the line. If Olson is commenting on New Haven by liberating the metropolis from its collegiate tenant, then the prevalence of crime in the novels—coupled with the city’s recent criminal history—is another statement, a characterization of the sort that Olson seems so diligently to oppose. The Annie Seymour series easily exchanges one stereotype for another: New Havenisn’t only for students. There’s plenty of room for criminals.
That New Haven is defended for its many virtues in a novel dedicated to depicting its criminal underbelly is one of the more intriguing facets of Olson’s series. Multi-faceted and complex, the Elm City is probably the best-drawn character in these books, a bias that bodes well for the city and poorly for the novels. Dozens of characters are flat “types”: there’s Tom, the gruff bachelor cop and Annie’s semi-boyfriend, who keeps nothing but a sixpack in the refrigerator; Dick, the irritatingly earnest reporter constantly assigned to Annie’s beat; Marty, the exhausted editor; Patricia, the New York confidante who lives in New York and whose purpose is to convey plot information from an esteemed vantage point.
Olson’s Yale students are the most thinly drawn. The academics in Seymour’s company have an empty, collegiate-guidebook glaze over them. They seem to congregate at Atticus precisely when Annie needs a tip, at least one is stoned, and they nearly always fall into either the “bookish” or “party-animal” types—that is, if they’re not murderers or escorts. Olson’s students are either boring, besweatered automatons or raving lunatics. Sacred Cows’ most subversive element is its resolute desire to kill the Yale student, either by numbing him into banality or ending her life with stab wounds.
Olson assured me that she felt no desire to kill off Yale students for anything other than plot reasons. But the novel’s structure hints at the town’s latent desire to take out obnoxious Elis carousing in the wee hours of the night. The very panache with which Allison Sanders and Michelle Peabody are done away with betrays a bit of pleasure, extrapolating Yale’s flawed relationship with New Haven to macabre levels. What makes Sacred Cows so fascinating is neither the failed love life of Annie Seymour, nor the inexplicable Cow Parade that gives the novel its name, nor the intolerably boring embezzlement narrative underlying much of the novel’s intrigue. It is the approach the novel takes toward town and gown. Strip away the conventions, the absurdist bovines, and the detective work, and you have an intriguing, strange allegory for the testy plight of Yale and the Elm City.
Of course, when the reporter controlling that allegory says things like “If I hadn’t known about the fiancée, I might have taken advantage of the darkness since it had been a while since I’d had my eggs poached,” certain themes are bound to be lost in translation. But even when put in Annie Seymour’s sailor’s mouth, Sacred Cows’ chief interest remains its struggle to integrate Yale and New Haven, New Haven and its reputation, public perception and reality. In this, Seymour remains a unifying figure, a pizza-obsessed, romantically confused New Haven native who bridges the gap between the flawed perception of a crime-addled Elm City and the opulent ivory tower in its midst.
Olson rips more than bodices. She takes anxieties—about crime, about urban development, about illegal immigration—from real-life Register headlines, only to have Seymour put them back in the fictional Herald with solutions attached. The murderers are caught, the corrupt ousted, the criminals apprehended. As mystery novels are meant to elicit anticipation and satisfaction, it would be easy to see the books in Olson’s series as providing a utopian vision for the city’s improvement. In solving a fictitious crime, Seymour can in some sense, to some cadre of paperback mystery-novel afficionados, solve the problems facing a very real city and a very real school. Society wants to see some mud on the ivory tower, but readers ultimately want some sense of resolution or progress. Despite the murderers, the escorts, and the corruption, Olson’s books are, in the end, fundamentally optimistic—the series continues, and the city always remains to be written about.