Penguin Books, New York
This book is quite a departure from those reviewed in the past two years or so on this website. First, it is a book that one can probably only get through inter-library loan –it’s not even listed as an out-of-print on Amazon.com! Second, it has little or nothing to do with archaeology!
So why review it? Well, first because Dilwyn Rees is a pseudonym for famed Welsh archaeologist, Glyn Daniel. Dr. Daniel was a Fellow and Steward of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University. His scholarly publications in the prehistory of the British Isles are voluminous, to say the least. And second, his protagonist in The Cambridge Murders, Sir Richard Cherrington, is obviously a whimsical version of himself. Sir Richard is the Vice President of Fisher College, a fictitious college physically “located” between Trinity and St. John’s Colleges and Professor of Pre-history.
The plot follows the “rules” of British “cozy” mysteries. A gatekeeper at Fisher College is found murdered as the College awakens to another day of scholarly pursuits. This unsettling occurrence is quickly surpassed by the even more unpleasant discovery of the body of a very unpopular dean—killed either shortly before or after the unfortunate gatekeeper. The local police, Sir Richard, and then Scotland Yard compete to solve the two murders. Sir Richard, who believes his skills at archaeological detection are easily transferable to the challenges of criminal detection, stumbles and fumbles his way through the investigation and actually becomes a prime suspect himself. This is a very entertaining, very old-fashioned British mystery—just the thing for a cold winter night, and preferably with a snifter of port or sherry at hand. It has delicious twists and turns to the plot, red herrings galore, and best of all, a portrait, surely exaggerated to a certain extent, of the life and ambiance of British college life some 65 years ago or so.
The charm of this little cozy can perhaps be summed up best by quoting from Sir Richard’s sister, as she describes her donnish brother in the following way:
“You know,” she went on…,”Richard is still at heart an undergraduate or a young don. He’s never grown up, really, and that’s why he’s never taken over the mature responsibilities of wife and children. Mind you, he’s not young in years. He’s my eldest brother, and must be nearly sixty now: and he looks old and distinguished with his steel-grey hair, his spectacles and his black ribbon, and his silver snuff-box. These are just the properties he uses to disguise himself as an old man. He’s still the young, enquiring mind of the late twenties—running off half across Europe to see a pot someone has found or to photograph a rock-painting that has just been discovered. I’m sure that he is at the moment nosing about this murder in Fisher College, infuriating the police, but enjoying himself immensely, and unearthing some curious little fact that they will have missed.” (p.93)