These two books are period pieces, and require some distance from today’s readers. Their archaic vocabulary habits, utter freedom from educating the young, except for admiring them as sportsmen, and the devotion of the college or country-house servants, recall a world of hierarchy and deference I would not wish to see again.
Michael Innes, Death at the President’s Lodging
The first of a famous between-the-wars series in which Inspector Appleby saves the day and Michael Innes contributed to that era known as ‘the golden age’. Well, yes, in today’s world that hierarchy of deference seems very far away–and a good thing, too. But we must agree that this is fanciful, and that it fancifully combines undergraduate men as well as the dons who didn’t teach them very much, in a closed world accustomed to policing itself. St Anthony’s College is rocked by a murder. This is, after all, Oxford, so the Dean contacts someone who contacts someone at Scotland Yard, and Appleby is dispatched immediately, while the local police seem to be sanguine about playing second fiddle to a London reinforcement. So, ‘who shot the Master’ is the question upon which the investigation turns, here like a locked-room puzzle, there more like a conga-line of dislike, even despising colleagues. Read it with paper at hand, and keep track, or you may despair of recognizing the large cast of characters. Any discomfort the college may feel about having a detective among them is answered by Appleby’s savoir faire. He is, after all, not only a gentleman, but also an Oxford man himself.
Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime
ISBN ISBN-13: 978-0712356022
Lois Austen-Leigh, as her name may suggest, was a scion of the family in which her great-aunt was the outstanding writer’s great-great-niece; this is the perfect moment to rescue her four novels, a modest contribution to the Golden Age crime story. The Incredible Crime was published in 1931, and followed by only three others, The Haunted Farm (1932), Rude Justice (1936), and The Gobblecock Mystery (1938). Part of the intriguing plot in this first novel is set in a Cambridge college, and full of first-hand observation. This imaginary college is called Prince’s, which seems to be quite near the real King’s College, where her Uncle was Provost. The Austen-Leigh sisters belonged to what is known as ‘the surplus women’, but had the advantage of income and connection. Of course, like Virginia Woolf, they had no first-hand experience of higher education, and not much lower education, either. She was thirty just before the Great War, in which she did the usual volunteer service, and wrote most of her books in the Entre-Deux Guerres. That fourth title was published at the end of peace-time. Like Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James, she set her fiction in Suffolk.
The plot is perfectly recognizable, and I can attest that the dirtiness of some of the dons reminds me of similar experiences seventy years later. The relevant don is a toxicologist, suspected by the heroine, Prudence Pinsent, of being a smuggler, perhaps of a dangerous drug; that he has fallen in love with Prudence transforms his sanitary regime. But it does not exempt him from suspicion. Since Prudence’s cousin owns the country house which seems to be involved in the smuggling, she has access to a lot of what going on, punctuated by fox-hunting. There is a range of detectives (in their small world everyone is either related to or went to Oxbridge with everyone else. I treasured the moment when the least smelly of the dons read out loud to the most presentable of the police, ‘Consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live.’ There’s more of that, and very amusing it is, too. Should you not recognize the passage, you have only to consult the reading woman of your choice and she will probably enlighten you.