Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Death Takes a Sabbatical: Review

Death Takes a Sabbatical (1967) is the debut mystery novel for Robert Bernard, pen name for Robert Bernard Martin, a professor of English at Princeton University from 1951-1975 who already had several scholarly tomes to his name.  A few internet sources claim that he wrote four mysteries, but I can find evidence of only three (even looking among the listing of his papers at Princeton). I was absolutely delighted when I discovered Deadly Meeting at our Friend of Library used bookstore several years ago. After all, we all know how much I love those academic mysteries.

DTaS features middle-aged American professor, Richard Halsey in the midst of his titular sabbatical. He has returned Oxford where he spent time as a Rhodes Scholar in his youth. While in England, he is actually staying at the cottage home of friends (while they spend a year elsewhere themselves) and traveling back and forth to London by train as necessary for historical research and pleasure. It is during one of his return trips that Halsey's adventures begin. 

On this particular trip to London, he has rounded off his evening with a musical performance. The first leg of his journey back to Oxford takes place by underground. Halsey is drowsy after a long day and the motion of the car sets him to dozing. He takes little notice of the three drunken men at the end of his car and is startled when the fourth passenger, sitting at his side, hisses at him, "For God's sake, get off this train at once!" Halsey is hustled off the train and the stranger introduces himself as a doctor--claiming that he realized that the middle of the three "drunks" was actually a dead man. He takes Halsey address as a fellow witness--even though the professor tells him he really didn't notice much at all--and rushes off saying he will report the incident to the authorities.

Poor, innocent Richard Halsey decides to report the experience to the police as well and immediately lands himself in a mystery involving missing dead men, murders, stolen gems, and hidden secrets. The good professor comes under suspicion himself when a body finally does turn up in a trunk at the train station and to add to his troubles his cottage is burgled and he is beaten, abused and kidnapped before it's all over. Of course, there are a few perks to the arrangement...one being the lovely woman who lives close by and with whom Halsey carries on a very successful romance. He also has the opportunity to play the hero for a bit at the very end and who can complain about that?

This is a pretty light-weight mystery offering. There are few clues to speak of and I really can't see how the average reader could possibly figure out what it's all about and who is responsible based on the meager crumbs we're given. There is a very tiny clue offered up that supposedly, according to the villain of the piece, should have revealed all to Halsey (who is much ridiculed by the evil-doer for being too obtuse to get it), but I don't believe even the good professor would have deduced the grand plot had he picked up the clue and run with it.

Now, despite the fact that this is in no way, shape, or form a classic fair-play mystery, it is an enjoyable romp and as a reviewer in the contemporary Saturday Review put it "jolly good fun." I describe it more as an adventure-mystery than a straight detective novel. Lots of action and I find Professor Halsey's actions to be pretty believable (except for the portion where he tries to go into hiding....). I can certainly understand his bewilderment as a stranger in foreign country feeling like the police have fastened on him as a suspicious criminal type. Excellent central characters from Halsey to his lady and her young son to his daily help to Mrs. Levering, lady of the manor and a very refreshing character, indeed. In fact, I do believe my favorite scenes all involve Mrs. Levering.

★★ all for character, fun, and a well-told tale--even if not fairly clued.

This fulfills the "Academic Mystery" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.


fredamans said...

Might be strange of me to say, but after this review, I feel like I know enough and don't need to read it. Maybe it's just me looking for 'WOW' lately, I don't know.
Great review!

Anonymous said...

I like Barnard a lot but have never read this one - thanks Bev.

Bev Hankins said...

Sergio: Just a clarification--this Robert Bernard (with an "E") not Robert Barnard (with an "A").

Anonymous said...

I really must stop parading my ignorance in public like this! Thanks for setting me straight Bev, as always.

Bev Hankins said...

Sergio...when I first found him (Deadly Meeting)...I made the the same mistake. (And it was logged wrong on Goodreads too--until I fixed it)