Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Incredible Crime - Lois Austen- Leigh

The bombing in Manchester on Monday night is throwing a long shadow over this week, and even though I know I've got nothing but platitudes to express how it's made me feel, it's still impossible not to acknowledge it. The increased police presence on the streets here, including the rare for Leicester sight of armed officers, reflects back an underlying tension that I really hope is short lived.

Meanwhile I can happily lose myself in some escapist crime fiction, Lois Austen-Leigh (who was the great great grand niece of Jane Austen) provides pretty much the perfect book to do that with in 'The Incredible Crime', which is blessedly murder (if not body) free, and spends a lot more time and energy on hunting than anything else.

Lois Austen-Leigh wrote 4 mystery novels all of which seem to have been basically out of print since the 1930's. Looked at purely as a mystery that's not altogether surprising, at least if this one is a representative example, it's all quite convoluted, she seems to have lost interest in the mystery she starts with quite quickly, the one she takes up is never entirely explained (at least I don't think it was), and the attitude towards her heroine is slightly jarring (far, far, to independent for her own good apparently).

Looked at as more than a mystery however it has a lot to offer. Once I'd stopped worrying about the plot it was thoroughly entertaining, and as a period peice it's fascinating. Her view of Cambridge and its academics is interesting too, and it's a cracking novel about hunting.

Prudence Pinsent is the almost middle aged, very good looking, daughter of Bishop Pinsent, Master of Prince's College, Cambridge. She's well off, well connected, self assured, swears comprehensively and at length, and is fiercely independent. Something her friends don't entirely approve of.

It's sometime not later than 1931 (when the book was originally published) and Prudence is about to abandon the world of academic gossip and bridge parties to join her cousin, Lord Wellende, for the hunting season. On the way she meets an old friend, Captain Studde, who works for the coast guard. He tells her about a smuggling ring suspected of distributing a drug (X.Y.X.) through Cambridge, there might also be a connection with Wellende hall. Some rather senior figures from Scotland Yard and the secret service are taking an interest.

Prudence promises to do what she can to help but her loyalties are torn between the demands of honour, family, and a Professor Temple - poison expert, cousin of Lord Wellende, and initially unlikely love interest. Nor is Prudence entirely above suspicion herself, the senior figure from Scotland Yard has his doubts. Meanwhile something is definitely going on at Wellende, but what, and has Prudence got utterly the wrong end of the stick on this one?

I think Lois Austen-Leigh is having to much fun playing with the forms of detective fiction, especially the country house mystery, to take it particularly seriously. The Cambridge bits are a little different, her uncle had been Provest of King's college when it opened up to a world beyond Eton, it's safe to say it's a world she had some knowledge of, and one she paints with a degree of affection. The Cambridge men all make much more likely smugglers or drug traffickers as well. It's quite easy to believe that a combination of war time experience and honed intelligence would give them a moral flexibility and single minded determination when it came to pursuing their own ends.

The passages (there are a few of them) about hunting are up there with Trollope for sheer enthusiasm (and length) and have an interest of their own (I can sit this next to 'Gin and Murder' in a little subsection of hunting based mysteries). Taken altogether it's an entertaining book with some lovely sly humour and a lot to enjoy - which is exactly what I've come to love so much about this series.

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