Monday, May 16, 2016

Gownsman's Gallows: Review

A body is discovered in a haystack near Oxford and Inspector Ringwood of Scotland Yard, a former Oxford man himself, is sent to to look into the matter. Not only was the body in a haystack, but the hay had been set on fire and only the man's feet and socks escaped unscathed. Following up the clue of a laundry mark, it is first thought that the man might be a certain Clandon of Pentecost. But Clandon is found alive and well--so what are Clandon's socks doing on the feet of the dead man? Ringwood brings along his trusty bloodhound and traces the body back to a missing Frenchman. The trail also leads to an Oxford undergraduate's ancient car. Tim Dawson-Gower, said undergraduate, has disappeared--supposedly withdrawn from classes due to health--and his elder brother's story of specialists doesn't quite hold up under scrutiny. His brother, Nigel, was a hero with the Resistance in occupied France during the war, but has his thirst for adventure led him to commit murder? The only thing missing is a motive. 

Then Nigel Dawson-Gower pulls a disappearing act as well and Ringwood follows the trail to France where he finds that there are motives that reach back to the days of the Resistance as well as modern-day for the Frenchman's death. Additional murders give the Scotland Yard man and his French counterparts more clues to follow up and eventually those clues point Ringwood to the culprit.

Gownsman's Gallows (1957) by Katharine Farrer is hailed on the front cover as "An Oxford murder mystery." I suppose, strictly speaking, that this is true. But nearly all of the action takes place in France and has very little to do with the halls of academe. For those of us who enjoy a good academic mystery, it starts off very promising. Tim and his brother Nigel are coming back to Oxford in Tim's ancient car, traveling along a seldom frequented road when Tim runs over a body. The man is already dead, but Tim is absolutely convinced that he'll be found at fault and very likely lose his place at Oxford. The brothers then set off on their merry little bout of deception and disappearance. Meanwhile, we meet the apparently absent-minded and somewhat dotty head of Pentecost College. He's all an academic in these stories ought to be--with a streak of shrewdness underneath. I was all set to settle down for a nice bit of mysterious academic shenanigans. 

And then...we go traipsing off to France and we drift into neo-Resistance plots and pseudo-plots. Not that it isn't all good fun and a nice mystery to boot. But I really wanted a straight academic mystery when I picked this up and it was a bit disappointing to find that the Oxford connection was slim and the academic setting not really used at all. I also found the French police methods to be a bit distracting and the Frenchmen's attitudes towards policing confusing. Ringwood is a much better policeman and I would expect a story that focused more fully on his character and his investigations to be excellent. As it is, this is a solid mystery with a promising beginning, well-drawn characters, and lively dialogue. The shift in locale to France keeps this story at a middle-range ★★ .

This counts for the "Car/Truck" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.
This is also my second offering in the 1957 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1957 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

[Actually finished on 5/14/16]


noirencyclopedia said...

This sounds lots of fun. I wish I had a reasonable hope of finding a copy!

Katharine Farrar

It's Farrer, as I discovered after a long and dismal hunt . . . :)

Yvette said...

Despite your academic locale disappointment, Bev, this sounds like a book I might like very much. But since I probably won't ever find a copy, I won't worry about it too much. :)

Bev Hankins said... are right! I keep mixing up the a's and the e's....Fixing now.

fredamans said...

I don't think this is one for me. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Ryan said...

It's always a let down when a book takes a direction you weren't wanting.