When I first saw this title with this author, I did a double-take: I teach White’s unabridged The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn every year and thought I knew all about him—but I did not know he read our Jane and even wrote about her work!
So it was with no small expectations that I began reading. 1932. It felt so strange to imagine the world in which White lived. “’Phoned” was spelled with an initial apostrophe from a time in which “telephoned” was the verb (27). There were many words I didn’t know because (I think) they aren’t used any more. A “bedder,” according to wikipedia, is “short for ‘bedmaker’ and is a housekeeper in a college” in Cambridge and Durham; Oxford apparently calls the same job a “scout” (17). Aspidistras turn out to be house-plants; did regular people know the name of the genus in 1932? (40) A prie-dieu is a prayer-desk (51). Perhaps in religious Christian communities those are still in use? “Bumptious,” according to merriam-webster.com, means “presumptuously, obtusely, and often noisily self-assertive,” but they asked me how I happened to come across this word, so apparently it’s not on the SAT top list (51). “She must bant”? (207) Does it really mean lose weight? I liked the cool expression: “he drove hell-for-leather” (216). Maybe we can bring that one back. A guy’s eyes are described as being close together—just like Jerry Cruncher’s! (40)
Language aside, here’s what’s basically going on, plot-wise: There’s a mystery involving a murdered freshman named Frazer. White introduces many characters and their actions before setting up the murder so the reader goes back to see what motives everyone has . . . to no avail. Yet. The double murder is at first confusing. The Sergeant says Beedon killed the kid and then himself, but it is too early to figure this out even assuming you do “get some queer fish in these universities” (19). Invisible ink! The master is using cocaine! “People who take drugs are sometimes very cunning” (31). Okay . . . it seems I’m reading for language now, rather than for story.
The back of the book says the university is easily recognizable as Cambridge (as apparently people who know the term “bedder” would immediately know), but I wondered, what is the connection to Pemberley? Did I get excited prematurely? As it turns out, this detective novel, which the back cover explains “became lost in the Depression years,” is really two detective stories.
The first takes place at the university. There is such a different type of investigation than would occur today. For example, a surgeon goes out and buys a pig and shoots it in all sorts of different ways to see what residue the bullet will leave and then to work backward and figure out what happened to the two men (68-69). The surgeon promises Inspector Buller that he will cleverly manipulate Sir Loftus, making the visitor think the doctor doesn’t understand the implications of his own experiment and having the visitor explain the meaning, first to the doctor and then to the coroner. The Inspector’s analysis of the gramophone evidence is a little confusing for a modern reader who didn’t grow up playing records very often (words like “tone-arm,” “catch,” and “speed indicator” 63). The revelation of information is also delivered in an unusual way. I wondered especially why the murderer would admit to the crime so freely (he even explains that he killed the kid because the kid happened to see him in the first victim’s room. This horrible man followed the kid home and “shot him dead”) (79). It gets worse: the one witness has also been killed, and the murderer takes a sick pleasure in revealing it to the inspector, whom he advises not to “hurry” since the body won’t move anyway (82) (which reminded me of Hamlet’s line to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but in a much less funny way). I also wondered why the inspector would go to the man he thinks murdered a colleague, tell him his suspicions, and then immediately regret his doing so? It doesn’t completely make sense until Mr. Darcy—yes, you read that right—does basically the same thing in part 2.
In part 2, the names Darcy and Pemberley finally appear, and the mystery for me is what on earth connection will there be? Sir Charles Darcy helped the Inspector two years earlier with a flat “tyre” (96). Elizabeth Darcy—”the Christian name had been in the family since the famous Elizabeth in 1813″—had told him Darcy’s tragic story and how he came to live at Pemberley with his sister after a misunderstanding during a cocaine bust left him a widower (97). Our Inspector is in love with Elizabeth (which means, in a way, he is the “Darcy” of the story, and the real Darcy is Bingley), and she with him, but neither knows the other’s feelings.
Buller confides the truth to Miss Darcy and Charles; he trusts them, and he has already resigned from his post in frustration that he hadn’t saved the porter (witness) (107). The murderer, meanwhile, “bullies his pupils” and is “so vain about his mental powers” in part “on account of his unappetising physique” (108). We, like Miss Darcy, worry a bit when Charles goes after Mauleverer, seemingly because, after experiencing evil in the cocaine guy, he hates evil. Since he is not himself amoral, however, he seeks a “fair fight” and actually warns the murderer, who enjoys murdering without one (114-15).
Charles grossly underestimates the power of evil. There are some delightful lines (Buller, for instance, says to Miss Darcy when they talk through possibilities: “we shall just have to pretend we’re in a detective story” 119), and other entertainments (such as Buller’s plan to keep Darcy locked in his bedroom for the rest of the week since it “would strike [Mauleverer] as a neat joke” to kill Darcy “within the week at the end of which” Darcy said he would kill Mauleverer . After the week is up they will have to kill him), but the tale gets really creepy when the darkness literally moves to Pemberley, and everyone fears for Charles’ (and maybe their own) life.
Miss Darcy is uncomfortable planning to murder the stalker, but her view strikes me as odd: she says she’d rather her would-be suitor and brother “were murdering [the murderer] for revenge or hatred, or just for fun, than that [they] should be compelled to kill him at a distance out of fear that he will kill” them (169). Elizabeth seems to change Buller’s mind—they shouldn’t plan to kill the guy—and so the plans change again, though they don’t tell her. But then, when the fourth murder occurs, and then a kidnapping, followed by a terrifying journey through the chimney systems that reminded me of Jean Valjean traveling in the sewers, suddenly killing this guy—and soon—seems the only option to save these good people.
The murderer/stalker reminds me of a sick Poe protagonist, enjoying his victims’ suffering and the thrill of being in control. Several weird twists: the presence steals a toothbrush (later found to be “crawling with diphtheria”), has white hands but not a white face, and sneaks into Miss Darcy’s locked room while she is sleeping and then draws a skull in lipstick on her mirror (138)! Along the way, Buller’s friend Wilder shows up to help—of the story’s two mysteries, this one is much trickier! The killer’s plan for torturing his victims made me think there should be some sort of warning on the cover. The worst punishment is for Buller—who will be last so the psycho killer can tell him “all the news [about]. . . Charles’ last moments . . . and how he enjoyed them” (272).
Without giving too much away, key moments include Buller’s shift from “trying to prevent Mauleverer shooting him” (self-preservation) to shooting Mauleverer (and saving Buller’s innocent friends) (278). The romance part happens quickly, but it is satisfying nonetheless, and there’s even the suggestion that past wrongs may be redressed as much as they can.
The tale is not so Austeny in content, but it’s a great house and history, which must be why White selected it :-).