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 lecture 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 asylum 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
- Murder at School by (1931) by James Hilton
- Darkness at Pemberley by (1932) by TH White
- Murder on the Blackboard (1932) by Stuart Palmer
- Reunion with Murder (1942) by Timothy Fuller
- The Wench is Dead (1955) by Fredric Brown
- Landscape with Dead Dons (1956) by Robert Robinson