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.
And the week 3 links.
If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.
I'm looking at a couple of different aspects of academic mysteries this week....
1) After last week’s Nicholas Blake, I thought I’d look at another obscure academic mystery: Robert Robinson’s Landscape with Dead Dons, first published 1956, thinking it would give me another full, single-book entry.
Robert Robinson is better known (remembered – he died in 2011) in the UK as a twinkly-eyed, satirical, witty and sometimes caustic broadcaster. He presented all kinds of TV and radio shows, including many quiz shows, and might be thought of as an early Stephen Fry. He was in his late 20s when the book was published, and was already working at the BBC, and may have thought this would be a nice sideline – but it was his only crime novel.
Although I was glad to reread it, it’s not that great. It’s full of very broad satire of Oxford ways - the characters all have silly names – and makes you see that Edmund Crispin was really rather restrained in this area. He makes a nice point of having an Oxford College of the day being a closed circle – because of the porter, and the secure gates and walls, no-one could have got in or out unnoticed, so there is a limited group of suspects. The reports of the academics’ conversations did not entertain, or even feel that real. The treatment of women was stupid and tiresome.
However, there was one aspect of the book which was both clever and original, but can’t mention without spoilering… You’d have to read it.
2) Student rooms. There was one described in the Robinson book:
Autumn found himself in a room similar to a hundred other such rooms in the University. The wallpaper was yellow, there were two old-fashioned armchairs which had been reupholstered in a rather stern shade of maroon, and a sofa the same. There were a dark brown sideboard, two stained tables (one round, one square), and a huge deal bookcase not quite full of books/ Dirty teacups from the previous day were crowded into the fireplace, and on a plate sat the remains of several Eccles cakes. Membership cards of various University clubs stood on the mantelpiece and disposed amongst them were a quart pot, a photograph of a girl, some pipes, a small plaque which read DEFENSE DE SE PENCHER AU DEHORS, and apiece of 18th century porcelain. On the walls were three or four pictures.
And it was nice to compare with this description from last week’s book of a female student’s room – this time in the USA:
The sitting room presented the chaotic appearance of many students’ apartments: books, pamphlets and cushions on the floor, the table hastily cleared for a meal, tattered curtains which had once been scarlet. In this shabby, slovenly nest, Sukie stood out with almost preternatural clarity of definition: a dark-blue jersey and fawn skirt set off the lines of her small, trim body; her face, for all the uncertain look on it, was vivid as a camellia. Artemis, he thought; no, Vergil’s warrior maiden, Camilla. “Would you like some Dubonnet?” “That would be nice.” She took a sticky bottle and two glasses from a cupboard.
3) Remembering a real favourite academic novel – and probably the only such I have read with an Australian setting. I blogged on it when Barnard died a few years back, so have dug out part of my post from then:
Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard
[The book is set in a remote Australian university town: Alice is a guest at a party given by the Wickhams for a visiting academic]
At this moment Lucy Wickham caught out of the corner of her eye the figure of Alice O’Brien, heading for the drinks corner, and maliciously decided to frustrate her. ‘Alice’ she said, gazing at her loud scarlet and orange frock of unfashionable length, and her peeling face with the too blatant make-up.
‘So glad you could come. How nice you look tonight. But then you always look so nice, of course.’
Alice gritted her teeth and wondered whether to hand Lucy the empty glass and demand a refill. No. Perhaps later. Or perhaps when she became permanent.
commentary: Robert Barnard wrote a large number of popular crime novels, and this was one of the first (the chronology is vague - in some sources this one is dated to 1974, but the copyright page gives 1977). It is a hilarious academic mystery, with sustained satirical passages that make you surprised it isn’t better known – Barnard mentions Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (on the blog here and here), and this book is at that level, while Alice, above, is a nicer version of Jim's Margaret.
Some of the humour is broad and not at all politically correct: characters are shown as snobbish, misogynist and elitist, and quite horrendously racist – but you couldn’t doubt that it is intended as fierce satire. You also couldn’t doubt that Barnard worked in academia: his vicious descriptions of academic infighting, the canapés at the party above, and the contents of an English lecturer’s bookshelves, all suggest straight transcriptions from life. You would guess he had a great time writing it, with its Macbeth moments, with the studies of ‘the poetry of George Eliot and the plays of Dickens’ and, above all, with the visiting academic who clearly remembers meeting Jane Austen (“charming woman… most witty”) before she died, although she was very ill.
It is a short, very clever book: in the last page or two you wonder how he can end it: and then the final sentence rounds it off with sudden brilliance.
As if Old Goat and the other novels weren’t enough, Robert Barnard also wrote one of the very best studies of Agatha Christie’s work: the 1980 A Talent to Deceive, a book that any true Christie fan can return to again and again – it is clever, funny and perceptive, and it is unlikely ever to be bettered.
The party-ready, on-trend women are from fashion magazines of 1977.
The first student room is from a Bell Telephone advert for phones in dorm rooms - it’s listed as 1922, but plainly isn’t – other evidence suggests around 1966. (Phones in rooms SO much something you wouldn’t be having in a UK room for a long time later than that - in most places they were probably about to arrive when they were overtaken by mobiles).
The other room is a 1981 student room from the well-loved LSE library archive, which I said last week is a great resource for pictures of how students actually looked in the past.