This is an academic mystery set in a Cambridge college, yet the opening has a very different feel, with Dr Geoffrey Willow, the bursar and secretary for an upcoming science conference, evading the mock weapons of three small children up a garden path. From there into the house of Master, Dr Courtney, the reader is assailed with a large number of characters from staff members to conference delegates. At this early junction we also hear of inter-college rivalry over a professorship with much of the dislike being directed at Dr Brauer. There is also some kind of plan afoot between some of the delegates, who share a history of both experiencing German prison camps. Events propel the plot towards a keynote lecture given by Brauer, who promptly falls down dead, having revealed a very dark secret about himself earlier that morning to our protagonist, Dr Davies. Of course before this death, a poisonous dart blow pipe had been stolen from a nearby missionary exhibit, which everybody went to and no traditional mystery would be without that awkward conversation everyone had at the garden party to do with native poisons. Our amateur sleuth is Dr Davies, who assists the police, though he does take a bit of kick starting. Further death follows, not that this prevents Davies from continuing his holiday plans. Thankfully the relevant witnesses and suspects keep bumping into him at the right moment.
I know it’s nearly Christmas but unfortunately this is going to be somewhat of an unenthusiastic review from me. Where to begin?
Well firstly the characterisation is somewhat dire to non-existent. The character list is weighty, but we don’t really get to know the characters; they’re pleasant enough, but felt more like names than people. Dr Davies certainly lacked vitality and presence. The “college talk”, which is done so well in books such as Sayers’ Gaudy Night, at times made no sense here or was rather creaky. Perhaps this is due to the silver age publication date?
As to the mystery element of the story, this too was affected by the characterisation. Not really knowing characters all that well, made the final solution lack impact and in some ways it could have been any of the suspects and the reader wouldn’t have minded one way or another. The victim’s own background in particular, which should have had quite a big effect on the reader, was dealt with a little too quickly. This latter point certainly affected the matter of motives. The author hints or mentions several potential motives, but most of these are never looked into, so the reader is fairly confident that the suspects attached to them are not involved in the crime. The way Dr Davies goes about solving the mystery was not hugely appealing either, ranging from a lackadaisical attitude to committing his own felonies or suddenly having that lightning bolt inspiration at the end. Having the setting change from Cambridge to London and then finally Ischia, weakened his investigation in my opinion as well. The third death in the book has a rather clever element to it, though some readers may find it a little too ridiculous to swallow. But again the changing of scenery means subsequent deaths after Brauer’s don’t get much narrative space. The blow pipe element is used well, but its effectiveness is stymied by other weaknesses in the novel.
However my lukewarm review does not seem to be the majority opinion as both Bev at My Reader’s Block and the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, have enjoyed this one more than me.