Think campus novels and you think of Kinglsey Amis’s Lucky Jim, set in a so-called red brick university somewhere in the English Midlands in the early 1950s. Or Tom Sharpe’s ribald Porterhouse Blue, from 1974, which skewers life in a Cambridge college. Or the novels of David Lodge, a professor of English at Birmingham University, whose celebrated trilogy of satirical digs at academic life culminated in 1988’s Nice Work. Booker shortlisted, it was later turned into an award-winning four-parter by the BBC.

And let’s not forget CP Snow, whose 1951 novel The Masters is arguably the work which kicked off the campus novel genre. It also centres on Cambridge University, but is set in 1937 against the background of the so-called ‘gathering storm’ – the onset of the Second World War.

Author Louise Welsh, herself a Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, has now joined the party with new book To The Dogs.

“I’ve always loved campus novels,” she explains. “Maybe it started with David Lodge, because I remember that brilliant adaptation on the telly. I remember watching it at my parents’ house and thinking: ‘This is so funny’. We didn’t know any people who went to university, so that world was fascinating.”

She’s a fan of The Masters as well, to the extent that To The Dogs opens with a quotation from it.

“It’s a really brilliant novel,” she says. “It’s one of these small Cambridge colleges and the existing master is in bed dying of cancer or something and they’re all squabbling about who’s going to be the next master. And they’re building this fantastic new building. At some point somebody says: ‘You’ve got edifice complex.’”

The Herald: Author Louise Welsh, herself a Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow UniversityAuthor Louise Welsh, herself a Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University (Image: free)

But, unsurprisingly for the author of Glasgow-set crime novels such as The Cutting Room and its recent sequel The Second Cut, Welsh’s offering comes with a side order of skulduggery and so forms part of a sub-genre – the campus crime novel. See Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for more on that.

To The Dogs centres on Jim Brennan, a high-flying academic at an ancient city university who has more than a little baggage in the form of his father, Big Jim, a once-notorious hard-man who was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. Which Scottish city we’re in and which university Brennan teaches at are never made explicit, however.

“I like the parameters of the crime genre and place is really important in that, but I wanted to widen it out and leave a little bit of room for the reader to come in,” says Welsh. “But yes, I work at Glasgow University and there’s a lot of Glasgow in there, though I did a couple of things to try and make it different.”

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For example while Welsh’s cloistered main building does bear a remarkable resemblance to Glasgow University’s eye-catching Gilbert Scott Building, her tower has a clock where the real thing doesn’t. “It was going to have one when it was originally being built,” she laughs, “but I’m always glad they didn’t do it because it would been a sort of tyranny across the West End, if you could always see the time.”

Another less grand building which also has a starring role in the novel is The Fusilier, Big Jim’s former local. It’s one of those flat-roofed places which are often covered in barbed wire, though whether to keep the regulars in or the troublemakers out is never clear. Edinburgh-born Welsh admits she had some of the capital’s less salubrious drinking spots in mind there.

It’s in The Fusilier, ironically, that Brennan’s feckless, drug-dealing DJ son Eliot is arrested, and it’s here that Brennan runs into an old schoolmate when he ventures inside in search of answers. That man is Eddie Cranston, now a lawyer embedded in the local community and not without his own problems. He agrees to help Brennan and his son, though events take a turn for the worse when Eliot is sent to prison on remand and the people he owes money to start to make demands.

And not just them. Construction company boss Peter Henders knows there’s a fat contract up for grabs with the university’s swanky new building project and he knows that having a friend on the procurement committee would be a distinct advantage.

Funnily enough, Brennan is on that committee and wouldn’t you just know it but Henders is an acquaintance of Big Jim’s and has contacts on the inside which could help Eliot? Which brings us back to the CP Snow epigraph: “One is dreadfully vulnerable through those one loves”.

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But it isn’t all shady pubs and grubby business deals. Another aspect of the novel relates to a fact which didn’t much trouble Snow, Amis or Lodge when they were writing – the way British universities have effectively become multi-million pound businesses, headed by chancellors who are paid CEO-style salaries and whose job is to project their institutions’ soft power into lucrative new territories.

In Welsh’s fictitious university, that means China: Jim Brennan, when we first meet him, has returned from a degree-awarding ceremony at the university’s Beijing Campus, and a sub-plot involves the disappearance of a former student of his in China. This in turn leads him to the Confucius Institute, China’s equivalent of the British Council.

“I guess I’m uneasy about things like the Confucius Institute and I’m not alone in that. I’m uneasy about any of our institutions making alliances – if that’s the right world – with countries whose human rights policies we don’t uphold. I’m uneasy about education-washing in the same way I’m uneasy about sports-washing and queer-washing.”

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Though she never takes to the soap box – crime novels “have political underpinning but they must never get too didactic,” she thinks – Welsh does have other points to make, about the availability of education to the less privileged for instance.

“I think at all of these great places, like the universities and conservatoires and art schools, we can see access shrinking, which is bad – not just for the individuals, it’s terrible for them, but also for society, because we’re beginning to fish in a pool which is too small.”

Ultimately, however, To The Dogs has a more pointed and basic question to ask: how far will you go for someone you love? For Jim Brennan, the answer is all the way.

To The Dogs is out now (Canongate, £16.99)