Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Penguin no. 865: The Cambridge Murders
by Glyn Daniel/Dilwyn Rees


'We exist, this University exists, to educate young men, make them take an interest in passing their examinations, make them not want to climb into College, make them less interested in shop-girls with nothing but a pair of legs and pretty face and fair hair and no conversation or brains. Damn it,' he said again as he walked back to College, 'I must have a word with the Dean - a very sharp word. This is all wrong.'

Professor Glyn Daniel was an archaeologist who taught at Cambridge University and published mystery fiction under the pseudonym Dilwyn Rees. My early copy of The Cambridge Murders bears his pseudonym; the later issue bears his name. Here he creates an amateur sleuth somewhat in his own mould: Sir Richard Cherrington is an academic and an archaeologist, and Vice-President of Fisher College. His enthusiasm for detective work seems to derive from its similarities with scientific enquiry; he cares more about the puzzle than the people, and he never doubts that his profession is ideal for developing the skills essential and sufficient for murder investigation.

There are many people whose animosity towards Dr Landon could be considered entirely reasonable simply on account of the treatment he is renowned for meting out. It means that when his corpse turns up, stuffed in an undergraduate's trunk, there are so many plausible motives that the county police find themselves baffled by all the possibilities. It seemed to me a flaw of this story that the police and Sir Richard between them seem intent on examining every one, so that the account of their investigations becomes interminable: the two investigations canvass an exhaustive series of hypotheses and virtually every permutation of the characters as interested parties, until it seems that a case could conceivably be made out against anyone and everyone associated at that time with the fictional Fisher College.

Dr Landon was its Dean, and he seems to have been a man who lacked empathy, or perhaps it was just that he thrived on conflict. In the space of a few years he had made many enemies, alienating his wife, ending the careers of a number of students, interfering in the spheres and responsibilities of his colleagues, and engaging in ongoing academic disputes. He is hated by his wife and her lover, and by various undergraduates, tutors, and dons. Now that he is dead, there are those contending that whoever it was that committed the murder had acted as a benefactor of the College.

But the Dean was not the only man killed that night, and while some may have been willing to overlook his murder, no one can countenance the killing of the Porter. He had been shot while on his nightly survey of the college grounds, and it seems to have been a murder committed in cold blood. The police consider two possibilities: first that the murderer panicked when he or she was recognised by the Porter, and second - appallingly - that his death was intended merely to provide a red herring, and to baffle the police by confusing their inferences with respect to timing and intent.

The Cambridge Murders seemed, for the first few chapters, to be principally a celebration of Cambridge University, with the mystery set within its environs almost an afterthought. Glyn Daniel was clearly intent on weaving every arcane nomenclature, cultural reference and stereotype associated with the University into his tale, along with a series of private jokes for his fellow academics. The story read as though the structure and motivation came first, and the plot second.

And there was a bit too much smugness and snobbishness, such as in the paragraph quoted above. It seems taken for granted that solving a murder committed within a University must be considerably more challenging than solving one committed without, because the murderer must necessarily have a higher level of intelligence than the hoi polloi.  I found the easy assumptions and self-satisfaction all a little hard to take: those who do not come within the compass of the University are looked down upon and have their tastes ridiculed, and a real resentment is expressed towards businessmen.

First published October 1945. Published in Penguin Books 1952.


  1. I love university murders, but this one doesn't sound like a huge success. Penguin obviously thought it worth reprinting, so people must have bought it!

  2. I came across a copy a few weeks ago, read the first few pages and found it all a bit precious. I really take my hat off to you for your stamina and perseverance in the face of often indifferent books.

  3. Words do not describe how cool your collection is!
    All best for your quest!



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