Men with brains and ability can be found all over the world, moreover there are always others coming on to fill their places, but such Jacobean rooms as this are not to be found all over the world, nor are they to be reproduced. The ceiling was finely moulded, and the walls panelled with oak, stained and darkened by the passing years. The dominant colour of the room was dark red or red-brown, the carpet was one or the other, the drawn curtains dark red, and two generous fires at each end of the room lit up the ruby tints of the decanters of port on the table and the splash of scarlet of a doctor’s hood someone had thrown down on the chair.
Although described as a Cambridge mystery, around half of The Incredible Crime is set in nearby rural Suffolk. However, there is still plenty of Cambridge flavour in Austen-Leigh’s depiction of crusty old dons bickering in their common room.
The story centres on Prudence, daughter of the Master of Prince’s College, and her two cousins. One is a bad-tempered and somewhat grimy Professor. The other is the fox-hunting lord of the manor over at Wellende Hall. One of them, it transpires, is a drug smuggler. Yes, this is yet another Golden Age smuggling story with an unlikely and probably fantastically unreliable distribution method.
Prudence is beautiful but considered all-but-unmarriageable by her friends because she is self-reliant and swears like a trooper. Yet she has a strong sense of right and wrong, and
determines to get to the bottom of this smuggling thing.
Unless, of course, it means upsetting any apple-carts. For this is genuinely the most self-consciously High Tory book I have ever read in a genre which wasn’t backwards in keeping the gentry at the top of the established order. Honestly it makes Gaudy Night look like the world turned upside-down. Fox-hunting, port, deference, obedience, ugh… There are several scenes where the loyalty of the peasantry (for example worrying about the master’s clothes being laid out properly even on their deathbeds) is discussed as though servants were naturally that way, and one scene where our supposed heroine lets a puppy sleep in her room, and then tries to make a servant feel bad about it as a matter of course. There is some irony, but not enough to make me feel as though I like this author.
A significant proportion of the book is spent in discussing fox-hunting, in language technical enough to be confusing to the layman. The world according to Prudence and her friends is split into those who do and those who don’t hunt.
Once mounted, her attention was fully taken up by her mare, who was fresh and fidgety. For the first hour hounds hunted round and round a large covert, the fox declining to break. Then in the far distance came that soul-stirring screech of ‘Gone away!’ There was a little pause, then one hound whimpered, two spoke to it, and then, encouraged by the huntsman, there was a sudden crash of music, and the whole pack went away at a racing speed on the line.
And is the crime incredible? Pretty much, actually. If by incredible you mean unbelievable. I defy anyone to guess what’s really going on at Wellende Hall.
Not really a crime, but incredible in its own right is the rather gruesome flirtation played out between Prudence and Professor Temple. The elderly don cuts his hair, shaves, and
has his teeth fixed in an attempt to woo his cousin. He even gets a puppy. And she goes for it, much to the delight of her friends:
When on one occasion he went out of his way to inform Prudence that she ought to be grateful to so great an intellect as Temple’s for sparing her a single thought, her meek acceptance of the statement quite frightened him.
Seems like subjugation is for woman as well as servants.
Not one for me…
The Incredible Crime
First published by Herbert Jenkins in the UK, 1931
This edition British Library, 2017
Source: Review copy (sorry BL)