DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY (1932) by TH White

Mike Ripley in his unmissable Getting Away with Murder column recently pointed to the reprint of this early campus mystery and it is through his auspices that I have very kindly been sent a review copy by those nice people at Ostara Publishing – a first for this blog. Ostara specialise in reprinting classic crime fiction and thrillers – and even have a whole strand devoted to books set in Cambridge, of which this is a prime example. Although there are a few jokey references to Jane Austen, this is a highly distinctive mystery thriller from the Golden Age that at the time of its original publication was greatly praised by no less an author than JB Priestley. It begins early one evening in the Old Court of a Cambridge College …

“The criminal scope in Cambridge has not, until recent years, been wide.”

The first thing one should say is that, despite its title, Darkness at Pemberley should not be mistaken for an homage to, or pastiche of, Jane Austen (despite what it says in the catalogue of the British Library, which has managed to confuse it with an Emma Tennant sequel to Pride and Prejudice). It does however have a few wry laughs at that author’s expense in the second half of the book, where the eponymous home proves to belong to a Mr Darcy and his sister Elizabeth … but let’s not get ahead ourselves. This is in fact a book so full of ideas, wit and invention that at times it does feel a bit like several books compressed into one. First published in 1932 by Victor Gollancz, this was an early work by TH White, a recent Cambridge graduate who was in his mid twenties at the time. The writer is best remembered today for The Once and Future King, his cycle of novels on the life of King Arthur, which provided the inspiration for the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot and the Disney animation, The Sword in the Stone. This has tended to draw attention away from his other work however, certainly unfairly in the case of this exciting thriller that marked his debut as a novelist. I first came across a reference to it in Art Bourgeau’s endlessly entertaining The Mystery Lover’s Companion about twenty years ago and have been looking forward to getting my hands on a copy ever since

“How did he get in if everything was bolted?”

This is a book of many parts. The first, comprising the first 40 or so pages, is a classic locked room mystery in which Beedon, a history don at a barely fictionalised rendition of Queen’s College, is found dead. He had been due to meet his colleague Mauleverrer and a student for a night out. However when they come a knocking, he didn’t open his door to them, instead just turning on his gramophone. They leave feeling rebuffed but the next morning he is found locked inside his lounge with a bullet in his head and the gun lying at his feet. This apparent case of suicide takes a strange turn when an undergraduate, one that has no apparent connection with the don, is found shot to death with the same gun in his lodgings on the other side of the street from Beedon’s room (as made clear by the nice little map provided at the front of the book). Both deaths apparently occurred within minutes of each other. It seems initially as though the don first shot the undergraduate, then went back to his room and killed himself. But in fact this is part of a cunningly conceived master plan, one that also involves cocaine addiction and the use of invisible ink. Forensic analysis in fact proves that the young student was killed after the apparent suicide – so why were these men killed, why was one killing made to look like suicide – and how could the gramophone start playing apparently of its own volition?

“We shall just have to pretend that we’re in a detective story” – Inspector Buller

Buller makes for an unusual protagonist – a flautist and a man of independent means, his desire to solve the case comes not from a need to show off his intellectual acumen or to advance his career, but because the murderer has done something truly wrong. This becomes even more marked when a third murder is committed … and it is here that the book makes the first of its significant departures from the traditional form. Indeed the story has barely started when the inspector cracks the case and identifies the murderer, who then proceeds to gleefully confesses. Only there is no proof. The villain of the piece is wonderfully characterised, a narcissist and an egomaniac and the scene in which he admits his guilt in the sure and certain belief that he is completely beyond the law is a real gem. Part one concludes with Bullen having solved three murders and utterly defeated in his ability to put the culprit behind bars.

“You forget that you’ve got a madman against you who is also a recognised intelligence at one of the leading Universities.”

TH White

Bullen retreats to a country estate straight out of Jane Austen, only for the nightmare to continue and become much more personal. He visits his friends Charles and Elizabeth Darcy. Bullen is in fact in love with Elizabeth but cannot conceive of a romance between a policeman and a member of the landed gentry (unlike White, Bullen is obviously not a fan of Dorothy L. Sayers). When he tells Charles of his recent failure, his friend drives to Cambridge and tells the murderer that he will see that justice his done. This infuriates the murderer, who begins a campaign of terror, secreting himself inside Pemberley and frightening all those within it. He introduces soap in the soup, puts poison on tooth brushes, paints skulls on Elizabeth’s mirror with her favourite lipstick, all without ever being seen. Then things get really nasty and another murder is committed by the unseen menace – the killer is hiding somewhere in the gigantic house, but no one can find him. Bullen remains to protect Darcy, but also compromises himself – believing that the police cannot intervene for lack of evidence and sure now that Darcy will be the next to die, he decides that they must track, find and execute the killer themselves. To this end they get a chemist friend of theirs to cook up, literally overnight, a toxic gas and, as if fumigating the house for the purpose of pest control, plan to be rid of their problem. But nothing is so simple and the book once again takes another left turn as we get involved in a wild cross-country chase to the Black Hills of Wales and back as the villain is chased in a succession of opulent vehicles – a Bentley, Chrysler, Studebaker and Daimler – that can sometimes reach speeds of 60 miles per hour or more (!). Elizabeth has in fact gone from spunky sidekick and potential love interest for the hero to damsel in distress …

“She became conscious that she must be dead.”

The latter sections of the book are by far the more substantial and take an increasingly strange turn. Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men gets name checked early on and one suspects that White enjoyed Wallace’s hugely popular thrillers full of derring-do, ingenious murder methods, villains hiding in the shadows of creepy old dark houses – and chases in fancy cars. But White also adds a new layer of complexity, as the hounding of the villain makes us question just how ‘good’ our heroes really are, especially when they decide to hide the body of one of the murder victims so that their activities won’t be interrupted by the authorities. Bullen then starts having nightmares which combine recent events with images of gassing and trench warfare, making it clear that for all his levity, White is aware that there are penalties and moral conundrums to be faced by heroes who take the law into their own hands.

This is a vastly entertaining book, written slap bang in the middle of the Golden Age, and in many ways celebrates many of its greatest attributes while also taking its narrative into new and unexpected directions – the author’s humour, and intelligence, are well in evidence throughout and this re-issue is a truly welcome one. Reprinted as part of their Cambridge Crime range by Ostara Publishing,  I heartily recommend this book. It is also available as an ebook from Amazon. To see Ostara’s full catalogue of vintage mystery titles, visit: www.ostarapublishing.co.uk

I offer this review as Lethal Locations part of the 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge.

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

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33 Responses to DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY (1932) by TH White

  1. Colin says:

    Never heard of this or the author but it sounds like a lot of fun. Anything which involves a locked room murder immediately grabs me. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    • Cheers Colin – TH White is a terrifc writer and the four volumes that make up The Once and Future King make for a really charming re-telling of the Arthurian legends, moving from the innocence of Art and Merlin to the tragedy of Guinevere and Lancelot with enormous style and panache – if that interests you in the least you really should get that book. Pemberley is a real blast though and completely different.

  2. westwoodrich says:

    Agreed – The Once and Future King is probably one of my all-time favourites, so I’m definitely going to be looking this one up. Ostara look like an interesting publisher too – are they based in Cambridge?

    • Hello there – Yes, I am fairly certain that Ostara are based in Cambridge. The book is very different from the Arthurian series but I liked it a lot. Always fun to see a lively and imaginative brain at work.

  3. Pingback: DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY (1932) by TH White | Tipping My Fedora | Past Offences

  4. John says:

    Review copies! Love ‘em. And Mike Ripley is a very generous guy. He drew my attention to the Top Notch Thriller reissue of THE YOUNG MAN FROM LIMA and I bought a copy. When I received a second copy out of the blue only days after I got what I thought was the copy I ordered I sent Mike an email and asked if it was his doing. Indeed it was. I think Ostara deserves as much attention as they can get, too. Such a wide variety of reissued and new books – all of them excellent choices. I have yet to be disappointed by anything they publish. I link to their website all the time.

    I’ve had the Dover paperback of White’s mystery novel for years. Thanks for one fo the most in-depth reviews of this book I’ve ever read. You have persuaded me to make it my first read for March. I think I’m going to read THE FOUR JUST MEN and this back to back.

    • Ostara do some really good workk and no question, Mike is a proper gent and no mistake (we Londoners, especially the ones who started out overseas, do tend to lapse into cod Dickens-ese every now and then, sorry about that …). In fact I saw you just reviewed one of their titles and would be commenting on it right now if I weren;t having some serious issues with authentication with blogger these days – i need to do something with my browser settings I think!

      And thanks very much for the compliments – I hope you enjoy both of ‘em!

    • PS In the case of Pemberley, you may be amused to spot a gimmick reminiscent of one of your stated favourite Columbo episodes – I shall say no more …

  5. John says:

    Thanks for reminding this reader/author about TH White. This one goes on my to-read list.

    • Hello John, thanks very much for stopping by. It was great re-visiting the world of TH White again – it had been far too long since I’d read anythign by him. Hope you enjoy this one when you track down a copy.

  6. Bill says:

    Just this week I was trying to decide between starting The Once and Future King or Mary Stewart’s take on the Arthurian saga and I went with the latter. I was not aware that White wrote mysteries and thrillers and whatnot but I’ll file that away for future reference.

    • Hi Bill – well, though White was apparently a real enthusiast, this was pretty much his main excursion into the genre as I understand it. Mary Stewart of course also wrote some pretty decent mysteries/suspense novels herself.

  7. TomCat says:

    A late response, I know, but I’m glad to learn that this one got reprinted and I will have to take a look at it in the hopefully not so distant future. It always impressed me as wildly imaginative and fun book to read and your review makes it really tempting to place an order for it.

    • Thanks TC for the comments, greatly appreciated. Ostara have reprinted some great books in the last three years and this title is definitely a real highlight as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Cheers, Sergio! I’ve just skimmed your review (with plans to read it more fully once I have a chance to read the copy you very generously sent me). What I read does make me all themore anxious to fit it in somewhere. What I really need is a few more hours in each day so I can fit in all the reading I’d like to get done (but, then, don’t we all?). I think perhaps next year I need to put the brakes on my challenge-mania and not sign up for so many…..

  9. Pietro says:

    …Ma ti sei accorto, Sergio, quanti romanzi son stati pubblicati nel 1932? E’ stato un anno fantastico, soprattutto per le Camere Chiuse. Vedi l’elenco delle 99 Camere di Lacourbe, e ti renderai conto che una quantità impressionante di romanzi scritti soprattutto da autori poco noti al grande pubblico, è venuta fuori proprio nel 1932. Mah..
    Per quanto riguarda questo romanzo di T.H.White, spero solo che Mauro l’abbia proposto a chi so io, e che l’altro abbia accolto il suggerimento, perchè altrimenti è un altro di quei romanzi che non vedremo più. Un tempo, vent’anni fa, avrei potuto ben sperare che prima o poi l’avrei potuto vedere esposto in vendita in Italia. Ora..è più difficile.

    But did you notice, Sergio, how are novels were published in 1932? It was a fantastic year, especially for Locked Rooms. See the list of the 99 Chambers of Lacourbe, and you’ll realize that an impressive number of novels written mainly by authors little known to the general public, is coming off right in 1932. Mah.
    As for this novel THWhite, I just hope the Mauro has proposed to that who I know , and that the other has accepted the suggestion, because otherwise it’s another of those novels that never I will see. At one time, twenty years ago, I would hope that sooner or later I could see exposed it for sale in Italy. Now .. it is more difficult.

    • Ciao Pietro,

      ti ringrazio moltissimo per i commenti. Certo il 1932 e’ stato un anno straordinario, un po come il 1939 per il cinema di Hollywood – se si pensa che Ellery Queen publico’s 4 dei suoi romanzi migliori proprio in quell’ anno (L’AFFARE KHALKIS, IL MISTERO DEELE CROCI EGIZIE, LA TRAGEDIA DI X e Y) fa proprio girare la testa! Per non parlare poi to quelli inclusi in quella lista che e’ piena di titoli che non ho trovato sia in Inglese o in Italiano.

      Sarebbe grande avere una versione del libro di White reperibile in Italia.

      Distinti saluti,

      Sergio

      ==

      Hi Pietro,

      thanks very much for the comments. 1932 was certainly an extraordinary year, a bit like 1939 for Hollywood cinema – if one thinks that Ellery Queen published 4 of his best novels right in that year (GREEN COFFIN, EGYPTIAN CROSS, TRAGEDY OF X and Y) it really makes your head spin! Not to mention those included on that list, which is full of titles I have not found in English or Italian.

      It would be great to have White’s book available in Italy.

      Best wishes,

      Sergio

  10. Pietro says:

    A proposito Sergio, è possibile che il mio blog sia presente nel tuo blog-roll? Insomma..siamo quasi parenti ! :-) Lo sai che mio nonno materno era un Angelini? Saluti.

  11. Pietro says:

    Ovviamente! :-)
    Casomai ti possa interessare, su Ellery Queen, A Website of Deduction è uscita da pochi giorni una intervista rivoltami da Kurt sulla situazione del Mystery più in generale su Ellery Queen più in particolare, in Italia. Tu che sei italiano conosci la questione, ma per altri può essere una sorpresa.
    http://neptune.spaceports.com/~queen/New.html

    Qualora in qualsiasi momento decidessi di intervenire per uno dei miei post, sarei sempre onorato (già solo per aver riconosciuto la bontà della riedizione di Obelists at Sea di Daly King, approntata da Mauro, meriteresti una segnalazione. Il guaio è che Daly King lo amano in pochi, non è conosciuto come altri suoi coevi..dalle nostre parti, intendo. Altrimenti qualcuno avrebbe sentito il dovere di pubblicare tutti i suoi racconti, che sono dei capolavori).
    Ciao e grazie.

  12. Yvette says:

    I’d never heard of this book, Sergio, but it sounds a total delight. I love this sort of thing, especially since reading THE MOVING TOYSHOP by Edmund Crispin. I’m exceedingly fond of late in the book wild chases too. :)

    I am definitely getting my hands on a copy of this. Thanks for the link to Ostara.

    • That’s good to hear Yvette – love to know what you make of it. And Crispin, and The Moving Toyshop in particular is just a non-stop delight – did you know Hitchcock paid for the rights to use the merry-go-round climax from that book for Strangers of a Train? True story apparently. Crispin was in a class all his own but I really hope you like Pemberley (certainly hope you like it more than the similarly-titled PD James book, which as I recall you were not too fond of …)

  13. Richard says:

    Ah, Friday Forgotten Books does it again! Of course I know T.H. White, but have read nothing by him other than Once and Future and Merlin. This comes as complete surprise. I’ve ordered it, thanks.

  14. Todd Mason says:

    Ah…and through this review, I see in part what might make, say, CONJURE WIFE resonate so strongly for you…

  15. Yvette says:

    Just bought a copy thanks to your recommendation, Sergio. I’ll be squeezing it in between other books during the next couple of weeks. :)

  16. Pingback: MURDER AT SCHOOL (1931) by James Hilton | Tipping My Fedora

  17. Pingback: MURDER AT CAMBRIDGE (1932) by Q Patrick | Tipping My Fedora

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