Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Murder at Cambridge: Review

Murder at Cambridge has what I'm looking for in a British academic mystery: It's funny and witty.  It's set at Cambridge.  There are dons and students and proctors and an absent-minded Master.  We see our characters at class and in Hall and in their lovely, old-fashioned 'varsity rooms (which are way better than the dorms I stayed in here in the States).  We get to attend a cricket match and there's mention of punting on the river.  Not to mention, we've got a pretty decent 1930s campus crime spree. Q. Patrick really has it going on.  

Our narrator is Hilary Fenton, American student studying at Cambridge's All Saints College.  He has never been great pals with the South African student across the hall, but when Julius Baumann calls on him for help, he can't refuse.  Julius asks Fenton and another man to witness a document which he then seals in an envelope and makes Fenton promise to post in the event that Baumann should disappear from Cambridge.  He tells Fenton that he may have to leave suddenly and may not be able post it himself.

That very night there is a dreadful storm, the lights go out, and when Fenton tries to check that all is well with Baumann he finds his fellow student dead from a gunshot wound.  There is cleaner and a rag nearby and it looks like Baumann may have accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.  "Death by Misadventure" will be the verdict at the inquest.  But Inspector Horrocks doesn't believe it.  Fenton knows it isn't true--but refuses to tell everything because there is evidence (he believes) that will implicate a certain Camilla Lathrop....light of his life and the girl he has just (that day as well) fallen head over heels in love with.  Despite knowing that Fenton is holding back, Horrocks takes him into his confidence and between the two of them, they will bring the culprit to justice.  But not before another death and an attempt on the beloved Camilla.

Q. Patrick is one of the several pen names used by various combinations of four writers (Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge are two others whose mysteries I've sampled) and this is third novel using this particular nom de plume.  Most of the Q. Patrick books are written by Richard Wilson Webb and MaryMott Kelley, but this one is the work of Webb only.  Up till now, I have much preferred the Stagge novels to those written under the Quentin name and I was curious to see what I would think of the Patrick offerings.  

If this one is anything to go by, I like them. I thoroughly enjoy Fenton's outsider point of view and his interactions with the traditional British characters.  My favorite character, however, was the Master of the College, Dr. Martineau Hyssop--portrayed as the absent-minded professor, he is very quick on the uptake when the killer tries poison Camilla with a little prussic acid in her tea.  It's clear that Dr. Hyssop still has it all together--even if he may not have all the names right.  The clues are all there--and there are enough red herrings that I got distracted several times (just like Inspector Horrocks) before coming to the finish line just at the same time as Fenton.  A good solid mystery plot with excellent characters and a nice peek at the 1930s university. Four stars.

Now, to those whose jaded appetites require the constant stimulus of thrills and horror, I am afraid that this chronicle to date must have appeared hopelessly dull and singularly devoid of dramatic incident...Nothing in that to make a song about--let alone a mystery story. No? Well, the unexpected happens so seldom at Cambridge.

Today it had happened twice, and yet these extraordinary happenings afterwards seemed like the quiet lull before the storm if strange incidents that were to follow--mere hors d'oeuvres preceding a regular orgy of unexpectedness. (p. 20)

Whatever the truth about our Master, the longevity of the Cambridge don is notorious. The excellence of the college cellar is probably responsible, on the principle that the better the preservative the longer the preservative. (p. 48)

 ... I was ready to weigh, with impartiality, the pros and cons of the Baumann case. I went to my room, rolled up my sleeves and proceeded, literally and metaphorically, to sharpen my pencil. Would I could have sharpened my wits to that same fine point. (p. 82)

Having lived for almost a year among young Englishmen, I had realized the sad truth that distinction in athletics seemed to supersede all other worldly and spiritual considerations. To be a "blood" at Cambridge meant more to the average undergraduate than the hopes of a ringside seat in heaven. (p. 89)

Cambridge, apparently is proof against all outward chance and inward circumstances, It goes serenely on. Dynasties may totter, currencies may crash and a sick world may writhe in postwar agonies, But undergraduates still attend or cut their lectures, they hold their debates at the Union and they continue to exchange rather painful persiflage on religion, sex and communism over pale tea and improbable cakes from Matthews. So it has been, so it shall always be. (p. 114)

For, during the past eighty or ninety years Dr. Martineau Hyssop had had abundant opportunity to perfect the art of saying the right things to the wrong people....But he dropped his little bricks so charmingly that they seldom, if ever, fell on sensitive corns. A great deal is forgiven a man who has lived through four or five generations and retained his interest in the things that go on in the world around him.  Still more must be forgiven a man who has always been careful never to say the wrong thing to the right person. (p. 123)


TomCat said...

I read this one over two years ago and, reading back my review at the time to refresh my memory, I really did not like this book at all. The worst of the Patrick Quentin books I have read to date, in fact. It was a far cry from the straight "A" that was their other campus mystery, Death and the Maiden.

J F Norris said...

Probably because Death and the Maiden was Hugh Wheeler and Webb, TomCat. I tried to read Cottage Sinister but had to stop; I loathed the sappy and trite dialogue. That one was Webb collaborating with Martha Mott Kelley. The Webb/Kelley books tend to be pretty lame IMO. When Wheeler entered the Patrick Quentin partnership with Webb the books became stronger in plots, had clever murder motives, surprise endings (for the most part)and sizzled with lively dialogue.

Bev Hankins said...

Now, TomCat, see...I've had a hard time with the Patrick Quentin books (under that name). Just haven't been into Puzzle for Fools or Black Widow. I keep thinking I haven't hit them at the right time. But maybe I'm just meant for the lighter, frothy things. :-)

I do like the Jonathan Stagge books that I've read so far....

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this one quite a bit a bit but have always been a fan of the Stagge and Quentin titles - I also would have to admit to preferring the Wheeler and Webb collaborations but this is a good little whodunit all the same - very nice review Bev, thanks!

Yvette said...

Sounds like something I'd definitely want to read, Bev. I love murder on campus. I mean, what else is college for but to solve mysteries? Love that book cover too. I thought I posted a comment on this but see now that I didn't. It's like deja vu all over again. I think I've left a comment and I find I actually haven't. Jeez. I hate getting old.

Yvette said...

P.S. There was a rare (to this area anyway) used book sale which I'd planned to attend a couple of weeks ago. The first in years. But of course I got sick the day before and missed the whole thing. I'm verklempt. :(

Bev Hankins said...

Aw, Yvette...I'm sorry you missed out on your rare book sale. :-(