Sampson found Miss Amelia Venable on the stack floor above Heyliger’s. Her study had neither the bleakness of his, nor the mellowed charm of Palfrey’s. There was a tea service instead of Palfrey’s sherry. The walls were adorned by a sepia mezzotint of Anne Hathaway’s cottage, a framed photograph of forty young women in the academic costume of 1910, an old silhouette of the Collins sisters, and a Currier and Ives print of Collins College in 1870.
Miss Venable’s grey hair was pulled back in a large loose knot, but was now escaping in wild wisps; she wore a brown knitted skirt and a gray cardigan sweater, and in profile rather suggested a witch. Crisp and taut, she met Sampson without hesitation or apparent subterfuge; also, he noticed, without the prolegomena of regrets and horror which were usual in these interviews. Yes, she remembered her movements of yesterday distinctly.
commentary: I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of academic mysteries; many have featured on the blog, and Christine Poulson and I did joint lists of books set in schools and colleges. There is a whole sesh of the Tuesday Night Club devoted to the genre. But I had never come across this book till Curt Evans mentioned it on his Passing Tramp blog last year. And now I’m surprised it isn’t better-known, as it’s marvellous.
It’s set in a women’s liberal arts college, I’m guessing in New England, in the 1950s. The book opens at a departmental meeting of the English faculty, introducing all the main characters and demonstrating the unhappy atmosphere and vicious infighting and politics that prevail there. The drama department is represented, and for a glorious moment I thought the book was going to combine academia and theatre – but sadly, theatricals more or less slid away (no money in the budget you see. Drama lady gives long hard stare. Motive, eh?).
Soon afterwards a most unpleasant and unpopular member of the staff is murdered. The younger academics join forces with the police to try to work out the alibis and the murder method.
You’d be hard put to solve the murder, given that a key event in the past isn’t even hinted at till well into the book, but that doesn’t reduce the pleasure. The characters are nicely drawn, there are clues and puzzles throughout, and plenty of red herrings that the reader can congratulate herself on spotting.
There is a massive reference work called the Compendious Bibliography of Prose Fiction in English – it reminded me of the role of Mr Casaubon’s Key to all the Mythologies in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, crossed with Miss Lydgate’s great work of scholarship in Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night, a study of English Prosody.
There is a suggestion that writing such a work might turn an author to suicide:
‘Imagine coming to one’s senses and realizing one had perpetrated the Compendious Bibliography. No telling what remorse might lead to.’The book is funny, and clever, and literate, and gives an exceptionally convincing picture (one would guess) of college life at the time. The toxic atmosphere in the department, and the differences of opinion between the younger and older members of staff, are extremely well done.
I worked out for myself that ‘midyears’ must be exams held in the middle of the academic year: I’d never heard the expression before, and at first had assumed that Midyears was going to be the name of the college.
I learned something else too: one of our sleuths goes to visit an ill member of staff:
Miss Lorenz received him in a ruelle; she was sitting up in bed, life in her dark eyes, more vivacious than he had ever seen her.It was not easy to find out what ‘ruelle’ meant, but eventually came across this definition:
1 archaic : the space between a bed and the wall
2 : a morning reception held in their bedrooms by fashionable French ladies of the 17th and 18th centuries
3 : a narrow street or alley
So we’ll go with 2, and – who knows? – perhaps she was wearing that Clothes in Books favourite, a bedjacket…
The book is highly recommended for anyone who likes an academic mystery: an absolute winner in the genre.
Marion Mainwaring’s only previous appearance on the blog was during our Tuesday Night Club on great detectives– Bev at My Readers Block always does us a fab logo based on a vintage book, and for those posts she produced this one:
The photo at the top is of Clara S. Stoltenberg, one of the first female professors at Stanford University, and is from the Smithsonian.