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.”
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.