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Saturday 17 June 2023

‘Murder at the College’ by Victor L Whitechurch

Published by Oreon, The Oleander Press,
8 March, 2022.
ISBN: 978-0-99-990048-9 (PB)
Originally Published 1932.

Murder at the College (originally published in 1932) appears in the Oreon Golden Age series and will certainly be welcomed by those who enjoy tales from that period. It was the last novel by Canon Whitechurch, a clergyman in the Church of England and a member of the Detection Club, who is perhaps best known for his stories involving Thorpe Hazell, a vegetarian railway detective, although Murder at the College is not one of them.

The story is set in the university town of Exbridge (clearly based on Oxford) and concerns the death during the lunch interval of a member of the ‘Consultative Committee’, a body of experts whose job it is to advise the diocese on alterations and additions to the fabric of churches. The plot hovers around the edge of being a locked room mystery: the room is not actually locked, but ingress and egress without being seen appear to be almost impossible. The local police investigate the murder, with other crimes lurking in the background.

There are a couple of nice touches in the plot. The victim, Francis Hatton (an expert on ecclesiastical architecture), is a keen reader of detective stories and an even keener solver of the puzzle. A friend speaks to the police about him: ‘He was deeply interested in crime just as a raison d’etre for setting up a puzzle and trying to solve it. Theoretically, he read detective stories, but never straight through to a conclusion. If the conclusion were obvious, he threw the book down; if, on the other hand, he found a difficult problem in a story, he set himself to solve it. Simple recreation, Mr Ambrose [the detective]. One man finds it in chess, Hatton found it in crime.’ There are also references to one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Both these themes have significance in the novel.

The author provides us with a foreword, in which he makes clear the distinction between a ‘detective story’ and a ‘thriller’ (and as we aficionados know he is hardly the first or last person to do so). ‘A crime and its solution’ is how he defines the detective story: ‘In the pages which follow,’ he continues, ‘this description has been strictly adhered to. The problem is gradually worked out on the ordinary lines of shrewd police investigation and methods. Every detail of the investigation, as it arises, is made plain to the reader – as he reads, he knows just as much about the case as the detective knows – no less. The author has tried to “play the game” fairly, and, in order to do so, he has strictly avoided “thrills.”’ One cannot argue with this!

Murder at the College is indeed a puzzle that one imagines Francis Hatton would have welcomed. It is no surprise to discover in The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards’ entertaining and informative survey of the genre, that Whitechurch ‘was supposedly the first detective story writer to devote such care to his description of police procedure that he checked the authenticity of his manuscripts with Scotland Yard.’ There is a lot to enjoy here: the story rolls along in a breezy style, the characters are interesting, and the plot holds the reader. And there is even a letter from the murderer at the end. Now, where have I come across that before......?
Reviewer: David Whittle

Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch (as born in Northumberland 12 March 1868 and died in Buxton, Derbyshire 26 May 1933). He was a Church of England clergyman and author. He wrote many novels on different themes. He is probably best known for his detective stories featuring Thorpe Hazell, which featured in the Strand Magazine, Railway Magazine, Pearson's and   Harmsworth's Magazines. Hazell was a vegetarian railway detective, whom the author intended to be as far from Sherlock Holmes as possible. He also wrote religious books, novels set in the church and his autobiography – Concerning Himself, The story of an ordinary man (1909).

David Whittle is firstly a musician (he is an organist and was Director of Music at Leicester Grammar School for over 30 years) but has always enjoyed crime fiction. This led him to write a biography of the composer Bruce Montgomery who is better known to lovers of crime fiction as Edmund Crispin, about whom he gives talks now and then. He is currently convenor of the Midlands Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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