Another new-to-me author brought to my attention by the Moonstone Press. Clutton-Brock, (I initially misread and miswrote it as Glutton-Brock!), only wrote one detective novel and during his career, he followed his father and became an art critic. The introduction to this reprint, written by Curtis Evans, is full of interesting facts. For instance, Alan’s wife died in the same car accident which also killed Josephine Bell’s husband.
‘Scientist James Hardwicke is invited to progressive co-educational Scrope House School to investigate a case of apparent pyromania among the student body. Although inclined to ignore this odd invitation, he is persuaded to accept by his friend Caroline, who wants a job at the school. It is May 1939, German refugees are streaming into England to escape the horrors of the Hitler regime, and the headmaster is worried about the ramifications of a refugee child being the culprit. Soon enough, James’ rather desultory investigation encompasses murder too, when sherry is poisoned at a faculty party. James must decide if there is a link between the fires and the murder, and whether the victim – the wife of the English teacher – was the intended victim or an accidental one.’
Alan Clutton-Brock was not the only author to be interested in using a progressive co-educational school as a setting for a mystery novel, with other titles such as Gladys Mitchell’s Death at the Opera (1934) springing to mind. Yet I think Clutton-Brock uses this alternative educational provision as a jumping off point for critiquing other ideas too, including vegetarianism and Communism, though progressive education also gets a rigorous examination too. This is not a narrative which endorses such an educational philosophy, instead showing its perceived weaknesses. I think the text does this best when it pokes fun through what is left unspoken, with the silence allowing the reader to fill in the gaps, as to the deficiencies of the system.
Regarding Communism, Curtis makes an interesting point in his introduction, that Clutton-Brock, (who was an old school friend of George Orwell from Eton), must have been in close contact with Orwell at the time, because his views on this topic are remarkably similar; to the point that a particular passage in the book is near identical to one found in Orwell’s war time diary. Incidentally this diary was not publicly available until 1968.
On reading the synopsis for this book I was intrigued by the inclusion of refugee characters; pupils and teachers. Similar to Harriet Rutland’s mystery Blue Murder (1942), a Jewish refugee character is used to examine British attitudes and in this incident reveals a potential vein of naivety in Britain’s political outlook. Moreover, one of the possible motives for murder in the story is that a refugee has been forced to become a Nazi spy. Yet despite this being a prominent theme in the first third of the book, the refugee angle disappears and remains in the margins, which I felt to be a shame. It also seems quite surprising that Clutton-Brock sets his book a few months prior to the beginning of WW2, (writing the book during the conflict), yet the narrative does not really mention the impending war.
Given James Hardwicke’s occupation as a scientist, it might be easy to think we are going to be getting a male version of Mrs Bradley, yet I do not think this is the case. Although I would say they can both be quite clinical in their approach to things and be accepting of unorthodox justice. The first few pages of the book set up why James is seen as an amateur sleuth; his specialism is in identical twins and he has been studying this type of twins in connection with criminal tendencies. Apparently this leads to the newspapers perceiving him as some kind of crime expert. He decries such a label though and to begin with he is decidedly not chomping at the bit to do any sleuthing: ‘I laid the letter on one side, this was only another instance of that extraordinary delusion, the delusion that I am an expert on crime, from which so many people suffer who merely know me by name.’
Unlike the Mrs Bradley mysteries, Clutton-Brock’s novel is written from James’ viewpoint, which I found intriguing, as we never get to see things that way in Mitchell’s books. A clinical and matter of fact tone can definitely be heard at points. Sometimes this leads to humour, as in these lines: ‘I suppose I was more or less in love. It must have been because I was in love with her that I am now unable to say what she was like…’ However, at other times I think this writing style can also mean we don’t get close to characters, such as the suspects.
To begin with, as I have suggested, James is in no mood for detecting and it is only through Caroline that he ever gets involved in the case. When they arrive James makes a big point of how he doesn’t like talking to people and how he goes out of his way to avoid having to say hello to people. Caroline ends up having to badger him just to get him to commence looking around the school and it is she who comes out with the detective-like questions. Normally detectives in books can conduct quite an intense amount of information gathering at the start of their case, yet James does not operate in this fashion, something which he acknowledges in passages such as this:
‘We were very lazy, no doubt but there was nothing in the atmosphere of the Dower House to spur or encourage the detective and perhaps it may be remembered, as some excuse for my apparent lethargy, that I was all the while conducting a complicated and not particularly successfully love affair.’
At this juncture all I could think was that if he was as lackadaisical at courtship as he was at detective work, I could well see why his love affair was unsuccessful. Quite frankly did she even know she was part of this love affair?
Thankfully the murder occurs at the right moment, as this event galvanises James’ sleuthing side and it is interesting that from this point onwards Clutton-Brock decides to sideline Caroline. She is initially set up as James’ humanising Watson figure, but quite quickly she is pushed into the background and often off the page. They’re not your typical detecting duo. Caroline only stirs herself once really during the investigation and it seems she does this more to enable an enjoyable day out with another man, than to aid the solving of the case.
Nevertheless, Clutton-Brock presents the reader with an interesting initial murder to solve, alongside the previous arson incidents. What makes the murder more perplexing is that another staff member also seems to have ingested a smaller amount of the poison used. We are therefore not sure who the intended target was at the bottle party and alongside the fictional detectives, we have to figure out how the poison was administered in such a way that not more people were poisoned.
As I was reading this book I found the prose style reminding me of Dorothy L. Sayers. It is similarly rich and can have something of a digressive note. It is in such passages that Clutton-Brock can explore other ideas outside of the mystery puzzle being set. Yet this is something of a divisive writing style within the mystery novel reading community, as it can be all too easy for these digressions to overwhelm the plot, (*cough* bell ringing *cough*) and make the mystery aspect less satisfying and unfortunately this is an issue with this book. The initial police work and sleuthing forays of James yield little information and then the middle of the book does not do much to fill in the picture. We even get a whole two chapters dedicated to a school cricket match. Many readers will enjoy moments such as this, but not for the information it provides for the case. Personally, I feel Sayers was stronger at including a greater number of clues in her work, (though you can easily argue she had more practice). Consequently, the narrative has to squeeze in a lot more detective work in the final quarter of the text to try and bring about a solution. Annoyingly I would say Clutton-Brock has latched upon a very satisfying solution for both the arson and the murder, particularly when it comes to motives. But alas, for me, there was not enough breadcrumbs, for this particular reader to follow to this end point. A snappier middle I think would have done a lot to improve this situation.
So whilst the puzzle aspect of the book is imperfect, I can see a number of readers getting a lot out of this from its social and cultural aspects.