Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Elegies and Evening Classes

Taking time off from Brexit and all its problems, I turn once again to murder and education, this time to murder in the Extra-Mural Department of the university in Bantwich, a city that bears some resemblance to Liverpool, where the author of Words for Murder Perhaps, Edward Candy or, in reality, Barbra Alison Neville (née Bodson) attended evening classes at the Royal Institution at one stage of her varied career.

The novel, first published in 1971, is not nearly well known enough though it was republished in 1985 by The Hogarth Press. It is a highly literate novel with an excellent plot in which people who share names with addressees of well known poetical elegies, human and feline, are killed off. Could it be someone obsessed with this rather dark but beautiful form of poetry? Could it be Mr Roberts, lecturer in English Literature and part-time tutor in the Extra-Mural Department, who has unexpectedly decided to give a course on Crime Fiction, Past and Present? Certainly Inspector Hunt, who cannot quite make up his mind whether he feels inferior to all these intellectuals he has to talk to or not, is inclined to think so.

After all, the first person to disappear is William Harvey, namesake of the famous Dr William Hervey or Harvey to whom Abraham Cowley addressed a fine elegy. The Bill Harvey of the novel is a more successful labourer in the Eng. Lit. field than Gregory Roberts who had, moreover, walked off with the latter's wife, thus causing a nervous break-down. No wonder Inspector Hunt becomes interested though he can prove nothing and other bodies multiply, each accompanied by a quotation from the appropriate elegy. Arthur Hallam, an Egyptologist, is poisoned and lines from Tennyson's In Memoriam are quoted; a young man, called Edward King is knifed and reference is made to Milton's Lycidas; even a cat is found drowned in a gold fish tank and the killer (as we know by then) writes out a line from Thomas Gray's Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.

What makes the novel pleasant to read is that, while there are a great many literary allusions, to elegies and to novels of crime, there are adequate explanations of the more obscure ones. In general, the description of the Department and its denizens, the swiftly drawn portraits of many characters and the clever description of police procedures and the relationship between Inspector Hunt and Superintendent Burnivel, who had appeared in Edward Candy's previous novels, are all excellent.

There is, however, one problem: there are no clues for the reader. But none. We know about the elegies, we know that Roberts, though a somewhat nervous person with a load to carry from the past, probably did not do it (no Christie, this), we know that there are some other shenanigans going on in the Department but what we do not know and do not find out until the very end is any connection between the characters who appear in the novel and the victims. Even when the killer's name is pronounced by someone in some other connection and the Superintendent reacts unexpectedly, we do not know why. What is it about that person's name that has sent Burnivel helter-skelter in pursuit? And that is something of a fly in the ointment.

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