James Hilton is probably best-remembered today for his trio of highly romantic novels from the 1930s, all of which were turned into successful movies: Lost Horizon (1933), the tale of the lost civilisation of Shangri-La, first filmed with Ronald Colman in 1937 by Frank Capra (and in 1973 as a fairly laughable musical); Goodbye, Mr Chips (1934), a school story adapted several times over the years, most notably with Robert Donat and Greer Garson in 1939 and in 2002 for television with Martin Clunes (and less memorably, again as a musical, in 1969 with Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark); and Random Harvest (1941), an amnesia story with a stunning narrative twist at the halfway mark that made for a smashing (if silly) movie starring Colman and Garson.
But before Mr Chips there was another story of generations of boys at an old British school whose education is disrupted by war and sudden death. Now largely forgotten, Murder at School was one of Hilton’s earlier novels and was in fact his sole excursion into the traditional detective genre, though he did dabble in suspense and other related areas on occasion. I offer the following review as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog. I also submit it as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have selected to read and review at least eight mystery novels with an educational setting published pre-1960.
This mystery novel has had a slightly complicated publishing history. It first appeared in Britain as Murder at School under the pseudonym ‘Glen Trevor’; it was then published the following year in the US, but with the title changed to Was it Murder? In 1935 it was reprinted, under Hilton’s name, but when it was re-issued under the Was it Murder? title in 1953 (the year before the author’s early death), it was again as by ‘Trevor’. To confuse matters further, it was then reprinted by the Oxford University Press in the UK under Hilton’s name in 1989, but this time using its variant Was it Murder? title! Although I have this latter edition, for the review I am using the title by which it was originally known.
“Whether Oakington was or was not a pukka public school might have been aptly debated by a squad of mediaeval theologians raised from the dead.”
It opens in December 1928 and finds its protagonist Colin Revell at something of a loose end. An Oxford graduate who “had one of those ‘brilliant’ careers that are the despair alike of parents and prospective employers”, he has since published one novel and been fitfully engaged on an epic poem in the style of Byron’s ‘Don Juan’. However, he also has a reputation as something of an amateur sleuth and to his surprise is invited to Oakington, his old school, to investigate the bizarre circumstances surrounding the death of Robert Marshall, a pupil crushed by a falling gas fitting in the dormitory. Although ruled an accidental death, the new headmaster tells Revell that he has been thrown into confusion when among the boy’s papers he found a last will and testament, apparently drawn up on the day of his death. The fitting didn’t appear to have been sabotaged, but then, who would want to kill an orphan schoolboy? Ultimately, after speaking to staff and students, little headway is made and Revell heads home, none the wiser. Six months later however Marshall’s older brother, and his only other direct relative, dies in an apparent freak accident at the school. This time Revell needs no invitation and so he heads straight back to begin a new investigation. Are the accidents connected?
“Isn’t the really successful murder not merely the one whose perpetrator never gets found out, but the murder that doesn’t even get suspected of being murder?”
Revell is once again put up by Dr Roseveare, the headmaster of the public school (i.e. private), which although not exactly of the first rank has been climbing up in standing since he took over. This time though he seems slightly less happy to see Revell, which seems odd since the circumstances of this death or more, rather than less, suspicious than the last. The boy was a champion swimmer and had gone for a practice run in the swimming pool. Unfortunately the lights had fused and the boy dove in without realising that the pool had been drained for cleaning – or so it would appear. Revell pines to find a ‘Dr Watson’ to confide in and seems to find the right person in Max Lambourne, a war veteran left suffering with neurasthenia after gassing and shell shock. He is clearly a sensitive and intelligent man, but his slightly cynical facade also irritates Revell, not least because it seems to mirror his own behaviour at times. He seems to agree that the two deaths may be linked – and that the most likely candidate is Tom Ellington, who is not only rather unpleasant in his brusqueness but it turns out was a cousin of the Marshall boys and stands now to inherit their estate – worth about £100,000.
Together with his charming and petite wife Rosamund he announces that he now plans to leave the school and use the inheritance to become a farmer in Kenya. Ellington was seen near the swimming pool on the night of the murder by Lambourne and it later emerges that he may have been able to loosen the gas fitting than fell on poor Robert Marshall – so, is the least likeable character a real suspect? And was there a crime at all?
“… though it was just the sort of thing that he had always longed to have happen to him, he was not altogether sure that it was as pleasant as he had expected.”
There is both and ambivalence and an ambiguity about the basic tactical approach in the construction of the story, as signaled by the ‘Was it Murder?’ variant title. Hilton make us constantly question whether the deaths in the book, which eventually amount to three, are in fact part of an elaborate criminal design (which of course is what we want from a Golden Age detective story and which our protagonist also wants) or just a mixture of coincidence and ‘damnable bad luck’. This is one of livelier aspects of the book, as is the increasing nostalgia the protagonist descends into as he spends more and more time in his old school (Hilton’s attraction to the setting may have been linked to the fact that his father was a headmaster). In addition, Revell becomes quite attached to Mrs Ellington, as does Lambourne, both convinced that she is potentially at risk from her husband if it turns out, as they suspect, that he is in fact responsible for the crimes.
“… the identity of the murderer comes as a lively surprise … and motives stand up to scrutiny” – Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor
On the other hand, as a puzzle the book is ultimately a bit lacking, not least for its limited range of suspects. I certainly knew what was going on long before Hilton decides to put his cards on the table. However in fairness one should also point out that during the final exposition, which is rather long-winded final so that one of the characters actually apologises for this, does show that Hilton’s plot is in fact a fairly ingenious one with some nice subtlety to the characterisation. On the other hand, although he does supply a couple of extra flourishes to keep you on your toes towards the end, the revelation about one of the characters in the final pages has a bit of a tacked-on feel to it, though it is a fairly pleasant little after-thought. Structurally Hilton is also fairly smart – just as Revell’s investigation seems to grind to a halt he introduces Guthrie, a real Scotland Yard Inspector, to create a bit of a competitive edge, though even this apparently fizzles out before what Hilton doubtless wanted to be a surprise finish. It isn’t really, but it’s good fun and to be honest I’m a bit sorry that we never heard from Guthrie and Revell again.
As part of my Lethal Locations: School challenge, I have so far read and reviewed the following, but am definitely open to suggestions:
- Darkness at Pemberley by (1932) by TH White
- Landscape with Dead Dons (1956) by Robert Robinson
- Murder at School by (1931) by James Hilton