MURDER AT CAMBRIDGE (1932) by Q Patrick

This was the third novel by ‘Q. Patrick’, the byline belonging to the same family as ‘Patrick Quentin’ and ‘Jonathan Stagge’. The first two were collaborations between Richard Wilson Webb and Martha Mott Kelley but this was by Webb writing alone. Also known as ‘Murder at the ‘Varsity’, it has just been reprinted by those very nice people at Ostara Publishing, who kindly supplied a review copy. For details about Ostara, click here.

The book is narrated by 24-year-old Harvard graduate Hilary Fenton, an American studying English at All Saints College. He is soon distracted though when, on the same day, he falls in love and finds a body in a locked room …

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 the final part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have selected to read and review eight mystery novels with an educational setting published pre-1960.

“But I had not come to Cambridge to shun delights and live laborious days exclusively”

Webb, an Englishman who spent most of his professional life living in the USA, was barely thirty when this book was first published and it shows in its energy, high spirits and the generally breezy one – the book is in fact all set across one fairy action-packed week. Webb adopts a fairly amusing if sometimes slightly arch and facetious tone with the glossary of obscure College terms and definitions that prefaces the book (e.g. ‘Proctor: A don dressed up as a policeman’ etc.) as well as its introductory chapter, which mocks the tendency to consider Cambridge as being second best to its Oxford rival. Fenton (whose full name proves embarrassingly to be Hilarion Aloysius), having already got a law degree, is now near the end of his first year studying English. Appropriately enough, it is during a Patrick-Murder-at-Cambridge-pllecture on William Blake that love rears its head when he sees the profile of a female student he later deduces (inaccurately, as it turns out) to be to be the niece of an acquaintance. He instantly falls for her, proving himself to be impetuous, young, passionate, foolish but also not without humour and good grace for all that. He unexpectedly comes across her later in the ‘A’ staircase serving his room and those of most of the suspects, students, masters and staff, in the case to follow. That evening Baumann, an unpopular but brilliant South African student and cricketer, had asked Hilary to sign his will and also to take charge of an envelope and post it if anything should happen to him – which, inevitably it does, during a fierce electrical thunderstorm.

“Inspector Horrocks of the Cambridge Police always made me doubt that the War was really over.”

Fenton and some of the other students sit in his room during a power failure and tell each other ghoulish stories, one of which, featuring murder and animal mutilation, is incidentally reminiscent of the plot to Webb’s later ‘Q Patrick’ shocker, The Grindle Nightmare. When Fenton tries to talk to Baumann he finds the man dead in his room, apparently having shot himself accidentally during the power cut, presumably shooting himself while trying to clean the pistol he was known to have smuggled illegally into his room. But Fenton finds a spot of blood too far away from the body and realises that it must be murder. During the power failure Fenton thought he saw his beloved’s profile on the staircase once more and, recognising her distinctive perfume in Baumann’s room, decides to destroy the evidence of the blood stain, believing she may be responsible. Then there is a second murder, another South African, and an attempted poisoning of the ‘Profile’ before a fairly surprising villain is unmasked. This is achieved by Fenton and the moustached Inspector Horrocks, who spends much of the novel tracking down William North, an ex-scholar and convicted murderer who inconveniently escaped from the local Patrick-MATV-longasylum for the criminally insane the night of the Baumann’s death and who proves to be intimately implicated in the crimes that follow. Fenton decides to protect his beloved (whose turns out to be one Camilla Lathrop) and sets out to solve the case – at one point he goes through all the suspects in as objective fashion as possible only discover, to his irritation, that he himself is the mostly likely suspect! This leads a pretty jolly promise by the narrator that there will be no Agatha Christie style withholding of information from this account of the events.

“I am rather ashamed to admit it, but during this whole week I am happier than I have ever been in my whole life before.

I thoroughly enjoyed this conventional-but-fun example of the 1930s campus whodunit for its solid plot and the obvious delight it finds in fixing the ways and wherefores of life at Cambridge, all told with the slightly ironic eye of an outsider (although an unexpected descent into religious piety proves towards the end proves an unnecessary and unwelcome addition). The plot has plenty of complication, most of which are satisfactorily cleared up by the end (although the apparent locked room mystery aspect is brushed away in a mere sentence disappointingly). For a slightly more critical appraisal, see TomCat’s musings at Beneath the Stains of Time where he reviewed this one last year (click here).

This is the seventh part of my contribution to the 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, reviewing pre-1960 mysteries with the theme of school / education. Here are the links to my other reviews:

Lethal Locations: School

  1. Murder at School by (1931) by James Hilton
  2. Darkness at Pemberley by (1932) by TH White
  3. Murder on the Blackboard (1932) by Stuart Palmer
  4. Reunion with Murder (1942) by Timothy Fuller
  5. The Wench is Dead (1955) by Fredric Brown
  6. Landscape with Dead Dons (1956) by Robert Robinson

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

This entry was posted in 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Campus Crime, Friday's Forgotten Book, Patrick Quentin, Q Patrick. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to MURDER AT CAMBRIDGE (1932) by Q Patrick

  1. TracyK says:

    This sounds interesting to me. This is an author I have heard of, but don’t know much about, and certainly have never read. I will keep it in mind for future vintage reads.

    • Really worth seeking out TracyK. I am a big fan of the books that Webb wrote or co-wrote as ‘Q Patrick’ and later (mainly with Hugh Wheeler, who became sole author after 1952) also as ‘Patrick Quentin’ and onathan Stagge’ for their combination of psychological xcomplexity and clever plotting. This is very much an early book – the cream of the crops are those published from 1936 onwards with Wheeler as co-author. I’ve reveieved a couple of their earlier joint efforts (Turn of the Table by Stagge and Puzzle for Players by ‘Quentin)

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Oh, nice choice. I’m a sucker for a fun academic mystery, and I do like the tongue-in-cheek approach. It’d be interesting I suspect to compare this to more modern versions of this kind of mystery.

    • Thanks Margot – the new edition from Ostara is a very welcome addition to the canon and a title well worth rescuing it seems to me. The books and especially the short stories under the ‘Q Patrick’ byline remain the least well-appreciated of the authors’ work.

  3. I’m curious: what was unwelcome to you about the religious piety in the plot?

    • Hello there – yes, you’ve caught me out, I am most definitely an anti-clericalist. However, in the case of the book there is an extraordinary breach in style where the narrator goes from his usual ebullient self to a Sunday service sequence which suddenly becomes very solemn and it all turns into a kind of sermon giving thanks for sparing the hero’s possible gilfriend – it sticks out horribly and I genuinely have no idea what it’s doing in the book as it is very unconvincing.

  4. Sergio: I just picked this one up this year (I’ve been searching diligently for it for quite a while & actually snagged the Popular Library edition you picture above). Like Margot, I love the academic mysteries. I’m hoping to read it sometime in 2013.

  5. Patrick says:

    I really like the work I’ve read by the Quentin writing team. However, it’s such a complex group arrangement that I honestly have no idea who helped write what with who!

    • Hello mate – I must admit, when I read my first ‘Quentin’ (30 years ago … probably well before you parents even met, right? Mamma mia …) I was just utterly fascinated by the complications thrown up over the authorship. The best of them are probably the Webb and Wheeler titles from 1936 to 1952 though Wheeler’s later books, especially the Symons favourite The Man with Two Wives (review coming shortly) is very impressive too of course and he does deserve a lot of the credit. John Norris reckons that webb was mainly the plots man, with an interest in gruesome true crime, and I think he’s probably right.

  6. Colin says:

    Another unknown author for me – I’m beginning to feel like a total ignoramus! Cheers for highlighting these mostly forgotten writers though.

    • Hi Colin – Quentin / Patrick / Stagge were pretty popular in their day but don’t get reprinted much now, which is why I was so pleased about this new Ostara edition – very much in the classic whodunnit mould, but definitely above average. Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (from the final Webb and Wheeler collaboration, Fatal Woman) is the best-known movie adaptation of the books with Van Heflin and Gene Tierney playing (renamed) versions of their recurring series character Peter and Iris Duluth – that movie, and the book it’s based on, are a perfect jumping-on point if one wants to get acquainted with the Quentin style.

      • Colin says:

        Oh! I didn’t know that. I have the Fox DVD of Black Widow unwatched on my shelves. Thanks for the tip.

        • I can safely say you have a treat in store … well, i hope so anyway!

          • Colin says:

            I also have an ever lengthening list of stuff to try to catch up on over the holidays. I’ll be exhausted by the end of them!

          • I know – for me it’s as much a mental thing as I pre-plan my DVD viewing, radio/audio listening, book reading far too extensively and always, always overestimate my own capacity to fit it around Christmas family gatherings and social engagements (not to mention my own decreasing stamina after a certain point in the evening – sigh ….). Still, better than the alternative – as Mickey Rourke says in the classic Diner, if you haven’t got dreams you’ve got nightmares …

  7. I have a number of Patrick Q. books on my shelves but never read one. Your review may change that. Love the covers!

  8. I have heard of this book, Sergio, though I have never read a campus whodunit before. I might give one of these academic mysteries a shot some time and I am sure I’ll like it. I have rarely panned first-time authors or books.

    • Really hope you get to read some of these Prashant – campus mysteries are probably more popular now than they were during the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the 30s given that so many writers also teach at Universities now. They are all well worth a look and a few hours of your time (I think) for their mixture of undergradutae high jinks and a proper debunking of too reverent an approach to ancient traditions.

  9. Jeff Flugel says:

    Thanks for pointing this author out to me, Sergio! I love a good campus mystery and a Golden Age one like this sounds right up my street. I’ve seen the occasional Patrick Q book around the second-hand shops, but haven’t ever read any…the background on their authorship seems pretty convoluted but interesting. I’ll be on the lookout for some of them now – any particular titles you’d recommend offhand, mate?

    • Hiya Jeff – the best known books by Webb and Wheeler were published as by ‘Patrick Quentin’, most notably the ‘Peter and Iris Duluth’ mysteries starting with A Puzzle for Fools in 1936 followed by Puzzle for Players (which i reviewed here). Then there were the other ‘puzzle’ books: Puzzle for Puppets (filmed as Homicide for Three in 1948), Puzzle for Wantons, Puzzle for Fiends (filmed as Strange Awakening in 1958) and Puzzle for Pilgrims. The Duluth series continued in Run to Death and Fatal Woman (filmed as Black Widow in 1954). Webb left and Wheeler wrote one more Duluth book, the fine if anomalous mystery, My Son, the Murderer (aka The Wife of Ronald Sheldon), which switches the POV to make the Duluths more peripheral. Wheeler’s later Quentin books, written after 1952, are even stronger on psychological suspense and The Man with Two Wives may be the best. I am also really partial to the books Webb and Wheeler wrote as Jonathan Stagge, which are more heavy on ghoulish atmosphere (I reviewed Turn of the Table here). Happy reading chum.

  10. Pingback: THE HORIZONTAL MAN (1946) by Helen Eustis | Tipping My Fedora

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