Our Tuesday Night group of fiction fans has chosen schools and universities as our theme for June.
Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo. She has also kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.
Here are the week 1 links.
And here are week 2 links.
If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.
After school mysteries in week 1, and Oxford vs Cambridge last week, I decided to look at a fairly obscure academic mystery – one that has a detective visiting an American University.
The Morning After Death by Nicholas Blakepublished 1966
Nigel sat them down for a photograph on the front steps. Peering into the magnifying view finder, he saw the four of them, tiny and sharp, in brilliant color. Reading from left to right: Chester, Mark, Sukie, Charles. Chester, with his small neat face and small neat body, a tentative smile on the one, gray-green English tweeds on the other. Mark, larger, not so tidy, corduroy trousers and a blue sports jacket, smiling broadly out of a round face. The streamlined figure of Sukie, gray eyes, black hair, vivid as a cardinal bird in her scarlet skirt and white sweater.
Charles Reilly, pushing out his sensual lips as if to shape a wisecrack or a line of verse. “A historic photograph,” said Nigel, happily unaware how the future would take up his innocent words.
commentary: This book has always stuck in my mind for an unlikely reason: I have never had the slightest desire for an academic career, but when I first read it I suddenly thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice to be a visiting scholar, and go to an American university in New England somewhere and do some important research into one subject.’ I never did anything about it, and the only other thing I ‘remembered’ about the book (although see also below) was wrong: Nigel Strangeways is forever talking about Emily Dickinson (from whom the title comes), and he visits her home town of Amherst, so I had him down as a Dickinson scholar, but in fact it is mentioned exactly once that he is studying Herrick. He’s a private detective, so why? No idea. And he spends zero time doing research – far too busy solving a murder. And, rather bizarrely, being seduced by a young student. There is a sex scene, nothing too graphic.
One would guess that C Day Lewis (Nicholas Blake was a pseudonym) had done an academic year abroad in his role as a poet, and based the book on the experience.
I don’t think it was as obvious to me when I read it 20+ years ago, but now it seems plain that the crime is taking place at Harvard, in an individual Hall called Hawthorne House. The book culminates in the Harvard/Yale football match, where the murderer is chased to a standstill.
The murder isn’t that interesting – the circle of suspects is so small, no surprise is really possible. But the picture of life I did find interesting. It’s set in 1964 and some of the students are involved in the Civil Rights movement. Blake should really have missed out the student who disguises himself as a black man in order to evade the police, and there is an of-its-time but inexcusable attitude to an attempted rape. Strangeways observes that ‘academic Americans tended to fight shy of the kind of extramural gossip that was meat and drink to Oxford dons’, which seems surprising. Surely everyone likes gossip… There is quite a discussion of plagiarism, and about students and their supervisors and the questions over shared attribution of ideas.
There’s talk of the rise of business studies, and that computers are increasingly taking over work. A missing passport is treated very lightly, because ‘it’s no use to anyone else’ so not worth stealing. Nigel watches a man with a leaf-blowing apparatus in the quad – I’d have assumed that was a much more modern piece of kit. The speed limit outside the city is 50mph. And I discovered that I did have another memory of the book. This:
He had discovered on a previous visit [to a restaurant] that a chocolate ice, consumed with Bardolino [wine], imparted to the latter a delicious flavor of wild strawberries.- which I thought the acme of sophistication when I first read it, and did try out.
One thing I wouldn’t have known back then is concerned with one of Strangeways’ remarks:
“‘ Love is proved in the letting go’— that’s what an English poet wrote.”
I now know this to be a line by Cecil Day Lewis himself - from a beautiful, heart-wrenching poem called Walking Away about leaving your child at school.
Blake describes the phenomenon of the Food Man, which surely must have been based on reality:
Suddenly there was the sound of footsteps beneath, and a yelling, bawling voice shattered the calm. “Food Man! FOOD MAN! Hot dogs! Coke! Coffee! . . .” Nigel still, after a week of it, leaped nervously in his chair every time he heard the appalling racket. Punctually at 10: 15 P.M. every night the Food Man cried his wares at Nigel’s entrance. Students, who had dined at 6: 30, rushed to fortify themselves against another hour of work. The Food Man was himself a student, who at the start of term had bid highest for the job and the modest profits it brought in— an example of private enterprise which would have shocked Oxbridge dons to the marrow. His bawlings could now be heard diminuendo as he went from entrance to entrance toward the far end of the court.So there was plenty of sociological detail to enjoy in the book, and the look at academia was fascinating.
Other Nicholas Blake books have featured on the blog – End of Chapter and There’s Trouble Brewing. C Day Lewis had a long affair with blog favourite Rosamond Lehmann.
The pictures of students are from the LSE library in London – wrong side of the ocean, but this is always a wonderful resource for pictures of how studious young people actually looked in the past.