LANDSCAPE WITH DEAD DONS (1956) by Robert Robinson

I begin this year’s book challenges in high spirits thanks to a gift from Bev, the charming and generous host of the 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge. As part of the Challenge I have selected to read and review at least eight mystery novels with an educational setting, all published pre-1960. Therefore this first submission is, appropriately enough, both a debut novel and one undertaken by the author as a challenge. In fact Landscape with Dead Dons was a bit of a one-off by the late Robert Robinson. In the UK he was much better remembered as a journalist, broadcaster and presenter of such long-running BBC quiz shows as Call My Bluff on TV and Brain of Britain on Radio. But before that came this comic story of death and bibliomania at Oxford …

Robinson came from a working class background but was able to gain a scholarship to study English at Oxford University, the setting for this novel, which he wrote not that long after graduating when he heard that friend and fellow journalist Godfrey Smith has just had a novel accepted for publication. Thus imbued with a competitive zeal, he used his recent student experiences as the background for this comic campus whodunit.

“Dons die and not a dog barks at their going”

Robinson studied at Exeter, Oxford’s fourth oldest college (and said to be the basis for Jordan College in Pullman’s His Dark Materials series) but the outrageous goings on we are presented with here all take place at the fictitious ‘Warlock College’. When a precious edition of ‘Paradise Lost’ in the Bodleian Library is desecrated, Inspector Autumn is set to investigate what appears to be but one of a spate of acts of cultural vandalism. The authorities are concerned that this could escalate following the recent discovery of a long-lost work by Chaucer, ‘The Book of Lion’, by one of the dons at Warlock. The College itself is something of an architectural monstrosity and currently has only thirteen inhabitants, all of whom prove to be highly eccentric and bestowed with monikers even more unlikely than that of our investigator. There is Tantalum, the porter; Chaucer scholar Chrisetelow; Manchip, the Vice-Chancellor; Dr Undigo, the Senior Fellow; the undergraduates Orson Dogg and rugger player Egg who lust after fellow student (“Hot-bottomed little mare”) Balboa Tomlin; she  however is currently carrying on an affair with the lecturer Dimoke ‘Dim’ Fairlight, who is fighting the Reverend Bow-Parley for the prestigious ‘Rockinge’ Chair (see what Robinson did there?); to the mix are added Mr Bum, a Fleet Street hack, and a cheerful pornographer by the name of Immanuel Kant …

After dining at the College and catching up on the gossip about the in-fighting over election to the aforementioned ‘Rockinge Chair’, Autumn spends a peaceful night at the College – but the following morning there is a rude awakening. Tantalum discovers what appears to be an additional piece of statuary on the college roof (hence the title), which turns out to be the trussed up dead body of the unpopular Manchip, who was stabbed in the back the night before. Autumn’s investigations are, due to the nature of Oxford Colleges at the time which locked their gates at night, so usefully circumscribing the list of suspects, though it has to be said that 13 can be quite a lot to hang on – not surprisingly, Robinson provides us with a full recap of their names, movements and potential motives later on in the book. On top of that there are several other quirky characters, most notable Mrs Spectre, who lives up to her spooky name by surveying Oxford with her telescope with military precision, convinced that England is about to be invaded by men coming from her TV set (which was a still a bit of a novelty in mid 1950s Britain of course).

“Mrs Spectre was a lady immemorial and stupendous, and she lived in a very tall house in the High just opposite st Mary the Virgin. She was the owner of a bugle and a telescope, two very necessary things …”

There follows a second murder and the uncovering of dark deeds in the stacks at the Bodleian Library before a wonderful climax set at Parson’s Pleasure, the small enclosure on the banks of the river Cherwell where male dons and students could sunbathe nude (it was closed in 1991 more’s the pity – the female equivalent, Dame’s Delight, closed in 1970). It is here that the killer is literally, and figuratively, unmasked and ends up being chased through the streets of Oxford by Autumn and the nude sunbathers. It’s just the right kind of ending for this book, both revelling and pricking the celebrated institutions of Oxford. For all its good humour and farcical climax, this is also a deftly plotted mystery, one that may not be able to compete with the likes of Queen or Carr perhaps but certainly gives Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes a real run for their money – and at its conclusion ties up all its various plot strands into a neat and handsomely garlanded little bow. And the cherry on top comes in the form of a main clue, a great big clinching whopper, that is well and truly hidden in plain sight – if like me you fail to spot it, you’ll probably smack your forehead and laugh at when you discover how you’ve been tricked.

Great fun and highly recommended.

As part of my challenge, I plan on reading the following, but am definitely open to further suggestions:

Lethal Locations: School

  1. The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin
  2. Darkness at Pemberley by (1932) by TH White
  3. Death at the President’s Lodgings (1932) by Michael Innes
  4. Landscape with Dead Dons (1956) by Robert Robinson
  5. Murder at School by (1931) by James Hilton
  6. Murder on the Blackboard (1932) by Stuart Palmer
  7. Last Seen Wearing (1952) by Hilary Waugh
  8. Miss Pym Disposes (1948) by Josephine Tey
  9.  ..?

***** ( 4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Campus Crime, Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes, Oxford, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to LANDSCAPE WITH DEAD DONS (1956) by Robert Robinson

  1. TomCat says:

    Sergio, I never heard of Robert Robinson or this particular book before (the blogosphere has been throwing them at me like crazy over the past week or so), but your review has procured a spot for it on that never-ending wish list of mine. What especially got me is that you think the plot is better than either Crispin or Innes, which were the names that came to mind when I read the first part of your post.

    May I suggest either Q. Patrick’s Death and the Maiden or Gladys Mitchell’s Tom Brown’s Body to fill the #9 slot on your list…

    • Hi TomCat, thanks for the two suggestions – I’ll see if I can get either of them and add them to the list. I love Patrick / Stagge / Quentin but am a lot less keen on Mitchell from the few of hers I remember reading in the dim and distant past – but definitely the right time to give it another go! I don’t mean Robinson’s book is better than those by Innes or Crispin necessarily but it is definitely in the same league. This title was Bev’s suggestion and was an unqualified success. I’ll let you know if I can track down the other two – thank again.

      Sergio

  2. Just sneaking in at November 1959 is Agatha Christie’s Cat Among The Pigeons – not that I’m recommending it – it’s rather average if I recall correctly. But it is set at a girls’ school.

    • Thanks Doctor – must admit, not much of a fan of that one either – and taking a leaf out of John Norris’ book I am holding off reviewing any Agatha Christie for as long as I can really …

  3. Mike Ripley says:

    I first read “Landscape with Dead Dons” 40 years ago and have raved about it ever since as it is the only detective story I know which tells you ‘whodunit’ BEFORE page one! When Robert Robinson died last year, I wrote a piece about the book in my Getting Away With Murder column which, I was told, was much appreciated by his widow when it was printed off and sent to her by family friend (and retired TV critic) Philip Purser.
    As to your Vintage Challenge I have, amazingly, read all of the titles you’ve targeted bar one, and am delighted to see the almost-forgotten James Hilton on the list.
    I would, however, switch your Michael Innes choice and suggest “Old Hall, New Hall” (1956) which is clearly based on the uathor’s time at Leeds University. It is very very funny and the scene where the hero is interviewed for a research grant called the Alderman Shufflebottom Award is hysterical.
    You should also add Glyn Daniel’s “The Cambridge Murders” (1945) to your list as a matter of urgency.
    Whilst editing Top Notch Thrillers for Ostara Publishing last year, I was able to acquire T.H. White’s “Darkness At Pemberley” for Ostara’s Cambridge Crime imprint, being quite astonished that it had slipped out of print. We’d be quite happy to send you the new edition, just drop me a line

    • Dear Mike, thanks very much for the comments, always. Thanks also for the suggestions – I shall definitely add the Innes and the Daniel books to my list. It was seeing the reference to White’s novel in your column last year that reminded me to put it on the list – thanks very much for the offer – I have sent you an email separately.

      All the best,

      Sergio

  4. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, I am so glad you enjoyed this one. I know I had great fun with it when I discovered it several years ago. Mike’s suggestion of Innes’ “Old Hall, New Hall” reminds me how much I want to get my hands on that one (it’s been on the list ever since I read my first novel by Innes) AND the White book is another much sought after title! Glad to see you’re going to be able to get hold of a copy of that one.

    • Thanks Bev, I really liked it a lot – a real treat. Let me get back to you on the Innes and White books as I may just finally be able to pay you back for some of your kindnesses. Cheers, Sergio

      • Bev Hankins says:

        Sergio, that would be lovely…but I wasn’t fishing, honest! I’m pretty set for books for a good long while, actually. My mother-in-law went to visit her sister in Florida over the Christmas holidays and discovered (beforehand) that there was a GIGANTIC used bookstore in Jacksonville. She asked me if I’d like to give her my list of “Books to Look For.” And I asked her if she realized what she was asking–I have 10-15 pages of spreadsheets (in tiny font)…..and that’s just the mysteries! There was long pause when I told her that. “Do you think you could shorten that a bit?” She brought me home 42 books! The best catch (as far as I’m concerned) was A Sprig of Sea Lavender by J R L Anderson which has been on my TBO list for decades. It doesn’t meet my Vintage standard (pub. date 1979)–but I had never found a copy in 20 years or so of hunting.

  5. Cultural vandalism, a bunch of odd-ball characters, a pornographer called Immanuel Kant (now seriously!), a couple of corpses… I’d definitely want to read this book at some point. Reading “mystery novels with an educational setting” sounds like a good idea, though, I’ve never read books based on a theme. I can suggest Colin Dexter’s THE DAUGHTERS OF CAIN which I read not long ago but I’m not sure it’ll fit in with your theme.

    • Thanks Prashant, I really couldn’t recommend it more. There are maybe a few too many characters to keep track of in terms of keeping the plot straight in your head, but it doesn;t matter that much. I really like Dexter’s books and think that is one of the better of the later Morse books too. However, I can;t use it for the challenge as the books need to have been published before 1960 – which is fair enough for a ‘Vintage’ challenge really.

  6. Sergio, my fault I overlooked the “pre-1960″ which is, indeed, “fair enough” for a vintage challenge, books or movies. I have only recently, legally, downloaded a few pre-1960 books no longer under copyright and am feeling like a kid left alone in a big toy store. It’s a happy feeling, though! Nothing beats the old paperback, of course.

    • I have yet to really take the plunge with electronic books. I am resisting it not least because my job involves me stting in front of a computer screen for much fo the time but I suspect I will have to get myself a Reader of some description soon – apart from anything else it is sometimes a lot cheaper, as you says. I hope we are not the last generation of readers to have their libraries stacked with phycial rather than digital books though …

  7. Sergio, you said it. I don’t have an ereader and I too have been resisting buying one because I’d like to read the physical books I already have, which is never ending. I’ve downloaded Amazon’s free Kindle app on to my desktop and laptop, chiefly for books, fiction and non-fiction, that I’m unlikely to find or buy; for instance, Burroughs, Zane Grey and Max Brand that are long extinct in bookstores in my part of the world. You also come across some interesting ebooks like THE LINCOLN STORY BOOK by Henry L. Williams based on some of the things that he said and did during his lifetime. There’s just too much stuff out there.

  8. Yvette says:

    I’ve never heard of this one either. But, the title alone hooked me. Now to get my hands on a copy.

    I love a novel that has an incredible and eye-popping chase at the end. I know of a few authors that have done this and gotten away with it because it’s just so much fun.

    Thanks for a terrific review as well.

    • Thanks for the kind comments Yvette, as always. I do think it is definitely worth tracking down in my opinion, as you will doubtless have gathered … Definitely one of the most delightful of GAD stories I’ve read since starting this blog, let’s put it that way and I’m really grateful to Bev for both recommending it and being able to get me a copy from her secret stash!

  9. Mike Ripley says:

    I am surprised this book is not better known and it isn’t difficult to get hold of. Back-In-Print books
    offer it new, print-on-demand and this morning there were 75 second-hand copies on offer on Abebooks.

    • Now that is really worth knowing – thanks very much Mike for bringing such good news. I wonder if some (UK) readers are wary because Robinson was so well known but not for his work as a fiction author and so imagine it to be some sort of ‘celebrity’ or vanity publishing perhaps? The blurb on the Penguin copy I have is not very accurate though – it sells it as a jolly jape in the manner of Tom Sharpe (a sort of Porterhouse Blue without the blue) …

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