Mortal Term by John Penn

published 1985   chapter 8

She wandered over to a window which overlooked the entrance to College House. And she witnessed the arrival of Mrs Avelon.

The silver-grey Rolls drew up smoothly, the merest whisper of gravel beneath its wheels. The uniformed chauffeur leapt from his seat and opened the door for Mrs Avelon to emerge. This she did slowly… and purposefully. She was wearing a simple expensive white dress, a red straw hat and red accessories. She looked as if she were about to attend a garden fete or, more probably, open one in aid of a well-known charity.

A man descended after her. For a moment Paula wondered if he were Mr Avelon, dragged by the crisis from his business affairs, which in the past had always been too pressing to permit him to visit Coriston. Then she saw the unmistakeable black bag. Mrs Avelon had brought her own doctor. Paula felt sorry for Hugh Roystone.

observations: Mrs Avelon – mother of a very unwell child at this fancy boarding school – is not in all honesty a very important character in the book. But hey, that’s a great picture we had on hand to illustrate it, and the scene may have more to it than you think.

John Penn was the pseudonym of a double act: Palma Harcourt (who wrote many many books under her own name) and Jack H Trotman, her husband. She was obviously very productive – more than 20 books appeared under this name in the 1980s and 90s, apart from her own books. This is the first I’ve read, and it is very much of its time, routine rather than brilliant, but entertaining enough. It has odd shades of Josephine Tey’s Franchise Affair – there’s a young girl who claims to have been attacked by Roystone, and it is fairly apparent that she is making it up, but why? This subject would be stepped around very carefully these days, but 30 years ago the policeman is saying:
‘From Roystone’s point of view it’s an awful pity she doesn’t look more like a tart. Then [his] story would be perfectly credible.’

The atmosphere of the boarding school doesn’t really come alive sadly – some of the best murder stories take place in schools, and you wouldn’t put Mortal Term in that category. However, I would guess that Penn/Harcourt/Trotman were all American and the book does not make that very obvious. The setting in Oxford, Reading and the Cotswolds is very convincingly done – a big surprise, and really very unusual. Many US writers, I am sorry to say, set their English books on Planet Nowhere: some weird dystopia based on Agatha Christie, Downton Abbey, and Cold Comfort Farm. Don’t start me.

Links on the blog: School murders here, here and here.


  1. Moira - No doubt about it; authors need to 'do their homework' and really understand a place if they're going to be convincing about setting stories there. Too bad the 'school' atmosphere wasn't stronger in this one; as you know, that always appeals to me. Still, it sounds like a decent read. And I do love that dress and hat!

  2. I knew I recognized this author's name. I have about 4 of the books by John Penn, a couple of stand alone novels, and two of the George Thorne series... maybe even this one, not sure. I have not read any of them.

    Now, having read this post, I am motivated to pull them out and try them. Lots of interesting information here. I did not know anything about the authors.

  3. I haven't read this book at all but what a great photo (I know I'm always saying this).


Post a Comment