C. S. Lewis as detective in Kel Richard’s The Corpse in the Cellar: A 1930s Murder Mystery (2015)

‘I saw the suspicious gleam in his eye and wondered if he thought he was looking at some secret society of Gentlemen Murderers. At least, that’s what his narrowing gaze said to me. What did he imagine we were? The Oxford League of Assassins: mysterious murders committed to order on short notice – reasonable rates.’

It’s not all plain sailing for Tom Morris, Warnie Lewis and his brother Jack (the name C. S. Lewis was referred to by family and friends in real life) on their walking holiday. The trouble begins when Jacks’ wallet ends up burnt in a fire in a pub. Seriously short of cash, the trio walk to the nearest bank in order to get some more funds. But this becomes no ordinary visit to the bank. A disgruntled farmer by the name of Nicholas Proudfoot accuses the bank manager, Mr Ravenswood of committing a crime and then locks him in the bank vault. Even worse after this occurs, the bank teller, Frank Grimm is found murdered, stabbed in the neck on the floor outside the vault. With only one entrance into the cellar where the vault resides and a lack of evidence of it being a suicide, Grimm’s murder quickly sets itself up as a locked room/ impossible crime mystery. It’s not surprising that Scotland Yard is called in. Keen to continue their walking holiday, Warnie, Jack and Tom are thwarted by the fact that the police require them to stay in the area and are treating them as likely suspects for the murder. This of course leads to them setting up as amateur sleuths, with Jack taking on the role of the brains, with the other two being more “Watson” like figures. But before Scotland Yard has arrived and with the threesome having barely begun their questioning of the local populous, another death occurs: Nicholas Proudfoot, who is found drowned in a local river. Jack, Warnie and Tom’s investigations bring up several possible motives for Frank’s death, a man renowned for his womanising behaviour and arrogant demeanour and who has got more than one young woman into trouble. The trio’s humorous detecting antics finally strike gold, but will they be in time, to stop the killer or will it be true that bad things happen in threes?

The Corpse in the Cellar

As the title indicates this novel harks back to the Golden Age of crime and in a way pastiches several of their conventions. There are many metafictional references such as:

‘Here we are in the middle of a murder, what? Almost like being in the middle of a book actually. Sort of thing that Agatha Christie woman writes about. Rather like her books myself.’

Moreover the characters also talk about a lot of Golden Age crime writers and their characters. For example, Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Erle Stanley Gardner, Freeman Wills Crofts, Inspector French and John Dickson Carr’s It Walks By Night (1930) are mentioned and tied into the plot. Moreover, the Scotland Yard detectives also have Golden Age connections as Inspector Crispin could be a reference to the crime writer Edmund Crispin and his Sergeant Merrivale, is arguably also a reminder of Carr’s sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale. In addition, possibly as a nod to the more supernatural elements of Carr’s novels such as The Burning Court (1937), there is a ghost legend (from the Georgian period) attached to the vault in the bank. The cellar the vault partially stands in, once held the murdered body of a footman, whom the householder murdered after he found him with his wife and today is the anniversary of when the ghost of the footman first supposedly appeared.

C S Lewis

So why choose C. S. Lewis as a detective? What does he bring to the novel as a character (based on a real person)? C. S. Lewis is well-known for his defence of Christianity and the novel is actually set after the publication of Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), a book which was written by C. S. Lewis in real life. Lampposts are also utilised in the story to hint at and foreshadow C. S. Lewis’ novel The Magician’s Nephew (1955). Interspersed between episodes of sleuthing, Tom Morris, a confirmed atheist begins various debates and questions Jack’s unshakeable assurance in his faith, using arguments today that we would be fairly familiar with, using science, events from history such as the Crusades and discussing the nature of truth itself. As a Christian myself, I found it refreshing that in a text where faith and beliefs are being discussed, that the side representing Christianity (C. S. Lewis) is actually given space to voice and defend his beliefs and not in a ridiculous or stereotypical way. These sections of the book were interesting and thought provoking for me, leaving me with things to think about, such as the way Christianity is viewed by others, but also about my own perceptions of faith and belief.

Including these discussions in the book, was arguably a big risk for the author, as I think it has made this book akin to marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it. Readers who enjoy C. S. Lewis as a writer and who enjoy debates and discussions, will probably like it, especially as they’re well-written and intertwined with humour. The humour is often conveyed through the character of Warnie, who contrasts with the other two, in his down to earth nature and lack of interest in abstract discussions. However, for those wanting a pure puzzle detective story, this novel may disappoint. The puzzle itself in the story is not difficult to solve, but the investigations involved are definitely entertaining and worth reading. This novel is not sententious or attempting to convert its readers. Instead I think it is opening up avenues of thought, ideas to pursue and questions to unravel. In a way the character of C. S. Lewis in the book is placing us in the position of the narrator, Tom Morris, and asking us to think about our own stance on faith and religion and whether or not these are the same thing. I think my only suggestion for an improvement regarding these parts of the book would be to integrate them a little more fully in with the detective part of the plot.

Rating: 4/5 (Although the plot’s puzzle was not as complex and intricate as I’m used to reading, the freshness and newness of having C. S. Lewis as a detective made this book a great read. The dynamics between the three central characters is strongly written and humour is evident throughout the text, as Tom Morris is a successful narrator of the story. Even if it wasn’t executed 100% successfully, the experiment of including discussions on faith was engaging and interesting to read, making me want to return to C. S. Lewis’ own works.)

I look forward to reading the next in the series, The Country House Murders, which is due to be released on the 17th September. Amazon’s description of the book does hint at a more intricate detective plot:

            ‘Dear Jack, I think I’m about to be arrested and charged with murder.’ Tom Morris, busy cataloguing the library of Plumwood Hall, is in a fix. Three days before, a member of the family had keeled over at afternoon tea after eating a slice of fruit cake laced with poison. And Tom has been fingered by the weasel-like Inspector Hyde as chief suspect. The young scholar turns to the only person who can help: his old Oxford tutor, C. S. (‘Jack’) Lewis. As they investigate, mystery piles on mystery. Why did the victim’s husband disappear twelve months before? Why is a strange tattooed foreigner living in a cottage on the moors? Who is the wild man of the woods? And most puzzling of all: how did a massive dose of cyanide get into just one slice of cake? This mind-twisting case has all the hallmarks of a classic Country House Mystery. Woven throughout the story is an engaging conversation about Lewis’s Christian worldview.’

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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8 Responses to C. S. Lewis as detective in Kel Richard’s The Corpse in the Cellar: A 1930s Murder Mystery (2015)

  1. JJ says:

    Saw this recently and wasn’t too sure whether to take a risk on it – the more self-consciously “classic” a modren crime novel sets itself up as, typically the less successful it turns out to be, and emblazoning “A 1930s Murder Mystery” on the cover was the critical straw on the back of my doubt-camel (hmmm). Would be interesting to read the debates, though; curiously, that might be the deciding factor in my now trying it out. So many thanks for this review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah I can see where you’re coming from, though reflecting on the use of such tags, I’ve been wondering if it was done in this case in order to pastiche or emulate Golden Age crime fiction, as often when I read texts from the Golden Age, phrases such as ‘a detective story’ or of course Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘a love story with detective interruptions’ do pop up. I think this novel definitely has a lot of unique things going for it, so is definitely worth the try… what’s the worst that can happen?

      Like

  2. Guy Savage says:

    Who is the publisher? The cover reminds me of the British Crime Library style.

    Liked by 1 person

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