Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Coffin (in the form of a Sarcophagus)
I first heard about this book through one of Bev’s Tuesday Night Blogger posts on her excellent blog, My Readers’ Block. The mystery in this book soon appears, on the night of Beaufort College’s Commemoration Ball. First of all there is the unusual student rag, where two unknown students purloin the bursar, Peter Benchley’s, newly acquired Egyptian sarcophagus, which is said to contain the oldest found mummy. However as they are chased through the college it seems the students do no more than return the mummy to the bursar’s rooms and submit themselves for a debagging and an intimate visit with the nearby river. Yet more dramatic events are to follow as in the early hours of the morning, with the ball still in full swing, the bursar’s rooms are seen to be on fire. Despite an attempted rescue, only some very charred human remains are found once the fire is put out, presumed to be those of Benchley. But from the inquest doubts begin to be raised by the dons, Denys Sargent in particular, who is wondering why only one body remained when there should have been both the mummy and Benchley in the rooms. There are also some doubts as to how the fire started and so quickly that Benchley could not get out of his rooms in time. Regardless of the inquest declaring accidental death, Sargent is not convinced and he enlists the help of a fellow don to find out the truth.
There are quite a lot of threads to this particular mystery including an academic dispute which Benchley seemingly recently acquiesced in, after years of arguing with Russian Egyptologist, Feodor Bonoff over the origins of Dionysus in culture. Benchley even went so far as to visit Bonoff at his home on the Isle of Wight and agree to buy the aforementioned mummy from him at a very high price. The mystery also touches on those closer to home such as Benchley’s niece, who wanted to marry graduate Mark Devereux, yet Benchley, for no real reason is adamant that she cannot do so. This is definitely a puzzle focused case which has plenty of physical clues and it reasonably plays fair with the reader, even including a middle section which although was too long for my liking, does allow the reader to review the evidence collected up to that point. However this is not a totally cerebral case and mummies and mummy cases do have a tendency of disappearing and reappearing a number of times. There is also a spot of house breaking and even a race to catch a ship.
Suffice to say this is a mystery novel with a decidedly academic milieu and as a consequence, being a part of this subgenre, the mystery genre itself is deployed in a more whimsical and light hearted manner. Even as one character says that this Oxford college ‘has slept through tumult that’s disturbed the world in all those centuries. It’s impossible to believe, sitting here, that there’s even been anything but peace anywhere on earth,’ we know that this will be debunked as the story progresses. Moreover, we are also soon aware that the amateur sleuths on this case are treating it as a fun academic exercise or game, which is epitomised in their approach to resolving the case at the end of the book. I think Morrah just about gets away with it, though the ending due to being rushed is not as effective as it could be. Although occasionally I think the reader can spot plot events which have been deliberately inserted in order to create an aspect of the later mystery. I know writers do this all the time otherwise they wouldn’t have a plot but it’s just in this book there are one or two places where this is too overtly happening.
In regards to the solution it is elaborate to say the least and makes you wonder if someone really would go to that much effort. Nevertheless this is a solution with a lot of novel aspects and is worth reading. The twist which I imagine to be the big surprise of the book is quite easy to guess, especially for the seasoned detective fiction reader, but this is less of a problem in this book due to the complexity of the mystery, meaning there are other aspects to focus on. For readers who like cases which focus on the how of the mystery, then this story will definitely be up your street.
There are some minor syntax issues, whereby the odd sentence or two does need to be read twice to grasp its’ meaning and the pacing is a bit off in the middle of the book, but again I think Morrah manages to get away with it once more, not committing a weakness too much to be particularly irritating. Characterisation on the whole is well done and Morrah is good at depicting academic characters and I loved one of his female undergraduate characters, Patricia Foley. She appears in the story from time to time, getting entangled in our amateur sleuth’s investigations and it is a shame that she isn’t used more in the story. Foley is a likeable character, who is very capable and independent, going against the preconceived notions of female students, which are held by our sleuths. There is only one character which didn’t really work for me, a working class women on the Isle of Wight. Morrah seems to have piled, or in my opinion over piled a lot of unlikeable qualities and attitudes into this one woman and she makes for an awkward read for a modern day reader. I am unsure what Morrah was trying to do with this character. Thankfully though she is a minor character.
So all in all I think this was a fairly good read. The choice of a mainly academic milieu, along with the novelty of the central mystery and the engaging nature of the central amateur sleuths are definitely three of the book’s main drawing points. Fans of the puzzle mystery will certainly get a lot out of this story, but I also think this story does have something to offer readers who like to glean social history from their mystery novels.
John at Pretty Sinister Books – FFB: The Mummy Case Mystery – Dermot Morrah
Bev at My Readers’ Block – The Mummy Case Mystery: Review
Stefano Serafini at Howdunit? – The Mummy Case (1933) – Dermot Morrah