Golden Age crime inspired by Austen…

Darkness at Pemberley by T. H. White

On July 18th, it’s the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. At Shiny New Books, we’re planning posts for every day that week. I’m far from being an Austen scholar, but I do seem to have read my fair share of prequels, sequels and other novels inspired by her works over the years – see here, here and here for instance., so it’s befallen to me to bring together a post highlighting some of these books.  I’m busy filling in a few of the gaps though – and while exploring which books to read, I found this one…

T.H. White is famous as author of the marvellous Arthurian stories collected as The Once and Future King (which I really must re-read one day now I have a Folio edition!). However, I’ll bet you had no idea that he’d written this Austen linked crime novel which was published in 1932. White was in his twenties at the time, and this was his first novel. Darkness at Pemberley is a novel from crime’s Golden Age, and is set in the time it was written. It begins with murder…

Our setting is St Bernard’s College, Cambridge. A series of callers go up the staircase to call on Mr Beedon – he appears to be in – the lights are on, a record player is going. However, his door is “sported” which means do not disturb in college parlance. Meanwhile Inspector Buller is called to attend a murder in Copper Street across the way from St Bernards, a young freshman has been murdered in his rooms. Then, next morning, the bedder opens Mr Beedon’s door to find him stone cold dead with a bullet through his head, an automatic with a silencer sits on the table beside him.

It appears that Frazer and Beedon were shot with the same gun. They speculate whether Beedon shot Frazer and then himself. But why? Buller’s sergeant says phlegmatically:

“We don’t know the motive yet. It’ll crop up. You get some queer fish in these universities.”

Suffice it to say, Beedon turns out to be a bit of a wrongun, but not as wrong as his murderer who has executed the perfect crime. Buller works out who it is, but doesn’t have the evidence – however, the murderer who is another fellow called Mauleverer, and Beedon’s rival for becoming Master next can’t keep quiet. He privately confesses all to Buller, knowing that Buller can’t prove anything, but not before another man is needlessly murdered. This crime comprises the first third of the novel – and no sign of any connection to Austen yet.

In part two, Buller retires from the force, disillusioned after his failure to convict. He goes to stay with a friend – Sir Charles Darcy, who lives at Pemberley in Derbyshire with his sister Elizabeth:

the Christian name had been in the family since the famous Elizabeth in 1813.

After the Armistice, Charles and his wife lived quite a wild life.

The newly married couple stayed little at Pemberley, which was dull even in peace time, but amused themselves perseveringly in the lights of the metropolis. They hoped that they were completely immoral.

However, Charles got caught in a scam involving imported liquor and drunk at the wheel crashed his car at a police road-block. He came to to discover that the liquor was cocaine and that his wife was dead. He was sent to prison for two years. When he came out he rarely left Pemberley, being persona non grata with all his old set. Elizabeth is devoted to looking after him.

Buller recounts the crime to Charles. They all wish that Mauleverer had been caught and sent to the gallows. Charles is so incensed on Buller’s behalf that he leaps in a car and drives down to Cambridge to put the threateners on Mauleverer telling him that he has but a week to live.

Mauleverer’s response is to come to Pemberley and terrorise Buller and the Darcys further. He plays with them, using the network of conveniently recently swept chimneys to make ghostly appearances and leave messages in the house – before things take a deadly turn once again and then Elizabeth disappears – one of the cars is gone. Thus begins a wild goosechase up and down the country as they chase Mauleverer, ending back at Pemberley for the climax.

I enjoyed the classic locked room mystery of the first section, finding Inspector Buller to be a worthy detective and Mauleverer a suitably nasty piece of work. However, the book fell apart for me in the subsequent parts set at Pemberley. Charles’ actions against Mauleverer show sheer stupidity and are only plausible if you consider them as a reaction to his cabin fever at Pemberley.  The section in which they all get in cars to drive all over the Midlands to the Welsh borders and around the Cotswolds chasing the villain reminded me of when a friend of mine worked as a courier for a while – his conversation was peppered with all the routes to any town you happened to mention. They certainly made good progress on these pre-motorway roads – I couldn’t believe how much ground they were able to cover!

Buller remained a well drawn character, and I did take a liking to Elizabeth – however the many contrivances in the longer country house mystery section of the book required too much disbelief on my part. Darkness at Pemberley was entertaining but, as an Austen-inspired novel, it is a mere curiosity. (6.5/10)

Source: Own copy

T.H. White, Darkness at Pemberley, 1932. Ostara paperback, 180 pages.

7 thoughts on “Golden Age crime inspired by Austen…

  1. Harriet Devine says:

    Sounds intriguing but you do wonder why he brought in the Austen connection! Perhaps just for a bit of fun as it doesn’t sound like it has much bearing on the plot.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It could be any big country mansion, any old family – and Charles in this book is so much the opposite of Fitzwilliam, it doesn’t feel like they share ancestors. Definitely a curiosity!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Gosh! I read and loved The Once and Future King back in the day, but I had no idea this existed. Having said that, it *does* sound rather like a missed opportunity so I shan’t leap to hunt down a copy…

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Even more distantly related to Austen Golden Age mystery: The Incredible Crime, by Lois Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s great-niece. Just out from the British Library series. Includes at least one Austen reference!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Interesting! Thanks. Hadn’t spotted that one – a lot of my ‘Shiny’ friends are addicted to the BL Crime series – I’m sure they’ll be checking it out.

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