Saturday, June 9, 2012

Two mysteries by unexpected authors

One of these I discovered by accident, browsing I no longer remember where, while the second I learned of from Yvette over at her blog, In So Many Words.  One of her regular features is a commentary on a forgotten book and this was one she mentioned.  I was so intrigued by the author and the subject that I immediately searched out the book.

I do reveal significant plot elements and developments.

C. P. Snow
Death Under Sail
Mystery Type:  talented amateur
Setting: England
Time:  1930's

C. P. Snow was a distinguished physicist and novelist, best known for his lecture The Two Cultures, in which he laments the gulf between scientists and "literary intellectuals."  According to Snow, it was the job of the literary intellectuals who were supposed to make science available to the non-scientific world, and they had failed to do so.  Snow is also known for his series of novels collectively called Strangers and Brothers,  which  concentrated on "depicting intellectuals in academic and government settings in the modern era."  Consequently it was a surprise when I stumbled across Death Under Sail a short  time ago, especially since it was his first published novel. (Quotations from the Wikipedia entry on C. P. Snow.)

Several nights ago I watched a dramatized version of P. D. James Death in Holy Orders.  It also included a short film of P. D. James discussing writers and settings.  She talked about mystery writers and what they do when setting up and writing a story.  One of the points she brought up was that it was very useful to set the story so that there were only a limited number of suspects.  The English country estate is a classic setting for many mysteries.

C; P. Snow was well aware of this for he set his mystery and murder on a small private yacht, with only six people aboard, all of whom, supposedly, were friends.   But, as in all good mysteries, the surface view bears little relationship to the real situation.  Roger, the host and owner of the yacht, has invited five of his friends about his yacht for a cruise. And, it is Roger, who is murdered, by someone he considered a friend.

He is found one morning at the tiller of the yacht, dead from a gunshot.  No weapon can be found, but some items, a cord and the ship's logbook, are missing.  Since no gun could be seen and autopsy showed that he died instantly, suicide was ruled out.  However,  I would suggest that fans of Sherlock Holmes might recognize the situation as being similar to one of his cases, "The Problem of Thor Bridge."  So, I was sure that I had cracked the case, very early on.  However, as the story progressed, the situation became more complex and I began to have doubts, still convinced though that it would turn out to be a suicide.

The crime actually was not solved by the police, although the office in charge, blessed with some unusual characteristics, wasn't as dumb as the others thought.  The narrator, a late arrival on the yacht, persuaded the others to invite a friend of his, Finbow by name, to join them on the yacht.

Finbow was a civil servant in the diplomatic corp who had spent considerable time in various obscure places about the planet.  But what was most important was "his only passion--the watching of men and women as they performed their silly antics for his amusement.  He watched in a curious, detailed, scientific way;  I  remember the astonishment I felt when he told me more than I knew myself about an absurd romance I had whilst I was in China. The chief impression which he made on me was of an amused and rather frightening detachment."  I think there's definitely a Sherlockian flavor here.   The narrator's idea, of course,  is that Finbow would be able to identify the killer.

While dragging the river at the point where the murder had been committed, the police found the gun tied with the missing cord to the missing heavy logbook. But, as Finbow points out,  the question is, therefore, whether Roger committed suicide and tried to make it look like a murder so as to get even with those aboard the yacht, or was this a murder which was first set up to look like a murder, but eventually would be revealed to be a suicide, and therefore allow the killer to go free.

The major disappointment is this:  I wish C. P. Snow had written at least one more mystery featuring Finbow.

Recommended for those who have enjoyed  C. P. Snow's novels and would interested in reading his first novel; for those who enjoy the more cerebral type of mystery; and for those who enjoy the mysteries of what is called "The Golden Age" of mysteries.

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T. H. White
The Darkness at Pemberley
Mystery Type:  first part is police procedural; the second part is thriller.
Setting:  first part at Cambridge University; the second at Pemberley Estate in Derbyshire
 Time:  the 1930s

Having just read P. D. James novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, I had to read this one when Yvette featured it on her blog:  T. H. White?   the author of one of my favorite fantasies--The Once and Future King.    Coincidentally, it was published in 1932, the same year that  C. P. Snow first published Death Under Sail.  This was White's second or third novel.

And, yes, Pemberley is the marvelous estate that Lizzy Bennett thought being mistress of would be wonderful.  The present inhabitants of Pemberley are Charles and Elizabeth Darcy, brother and sister, who are descendents of THE Lizzie and Darcy of Pride and Prejudice.

Part One takes place at barely disguised Queen's College, Cambridge and is a traditional police procedural.  Several murders have been committed, one of which takes place in a very ingenious locked-room setting.  Mr. Beedon, a history don, was found dead with a gun nearby in a  locked room,  That gun was later found to be the same gun that had killed a student at about the same time, and, therefore,  it seemed clear that Beedon had killed the student and then committed suicide because of guilt. 

Inspector Buller, of the Cambridge police, was not satisfied.  for there were several anomalies, one of which was that Beedon, it was later discovered, had died first.  The first part,  therefore, is of Inspector Buller's investigation in which he finally works out the identity of the killer.  Unfortunately, he lacks proof, but he informs the killer that he is known, hoping I suppose, to dissuade the killer from committing any more murders because the police are now aware of him.

It is at this point where the novel gets strange.  Buller is invited down to Pemberley for a vacation and participation in war games, with small, but very real, cannons.  It was a passion of Charles Darcy.  Buller had met Charles and Elizabeth Darcy several years ago on a vacation trip.  He had been driving by the estate when his front tyre was destroyed by a cannon shell that came over the wall.  Invited in while his tyre was replaced, he became friends with the Darcys, and eventually fell in love with Elizabeth.  Being a police officer, he was of a much lower social status than the Darcys, even though Charles had a prison record, and Buller, therefore, considered his situation hopeless.  But, being fiction, I could only wonder just how hopeless his situation was.

Buller tells the Darcys about his last case and that the killer, even though known, couldn't be arrested for the two murders.  Charles Darcy, a bit on the headstrong side, goes to Cambridge and  confronts the killer.  The killer immediately decides, once Darcy's connection to Inspector Buller is revealed, to kill Darcy for revenge and to show Buller just how helpless he is.

At this point, the novel turns into a thriller in which Buller desperately attempts to keep Charles alive.  It soon becomes clear that the killer has somehow managed to invade the Pemberley mansion and seemingly moves freely about the place regardless of the efforts of Buller and the estate staff, all of whom are devoted to the Darcys. Buller knows, though, that it's just a matter of time before the killer tires of the game and will move to kill Charles.  But, where is the killer hiding and how can he move about the mansion without being discovered?

Overall Comments:  it's a strange mix of cerebral mystery and an action-oriented novel   What makes it even stranger is the tie-in with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.   For those looking for something a little bit different, I would recommend this one.

While I no longer have the room to keep everything I read,  I have decided that these two are keepers.

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