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