Friday, 19 July 2013

Forgotten Book - The Mummy Case Mystery

The problem with acquiring books as enthusiastically as I do is that sometimes it takes far too  long to get round to reading them. A case in point is my Forgotten Book for today, The Mummy Case Mystery by Dermot Morrah. I bought it years ago, and kept meaning to get round to reading it. But for reasons I simply can't explain, I've only just tackled it. And as so often, now I can't understand why it took me so long. It's  a really good book.

What prompted me to promote it ahead of dozens of other worthy books in the tottering piles in my cellar was the fact that the story is set in Oxford, and I thought it would help my research into locations for a literary walk of that city which I'll be conducting with foreign crime writers next month. But what really pleased me was how lively and enjoyable the story was.

The book, first published in 1933, is set mainly in the fictitious Beaufort College, and features a dispute between two academics, one British and one Russian, who are fervent Egyptologists. When a fire in the college seems to result in the death of Professor Benchley, two of his colleagues decide to find out exactly what has happened, and the significance of an ancient mummy which Benchley paid a vast sum for but the fate of which is now unclear.

I guessed the main twist, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of this very smoothly written book one bit. It's a shame that Morrah, an Irishman who was a fellow of All Souls (where he shared rooms with Lawrence of Arabia) never wrote another detective novel. He was a gifted man who went on to write leaders for The Times and books about royalty - and industrial life insurance. He also wrote speeches for members of the Royal Family, including the Queen, and was a member of the College of Arms. All very worthy, but this novel shows that he also had a real talent for light and amusing dialogue and characterisation.

Like many Golden Age novels, it flags a bit in the later stages, but overall it's great fun and conveys the college scene very well. The theme of "scholarly rectitude" is not dissimilar from the theme of Dorothy L. Sayers' much more famous Gaudy Night, and frankly this novel is a swifter and livelier read. Morrah dedicated the book to A.S.C.R. and my deduction is that this was to his fellow dons in the All Souls Common Room,


J F Norris said...

The roommate of T.E. Lawrence! That's great. Thanks for all the background on Morrah. Fascinating to read.

THE MUMMY CASE MYSTERY is almost a primer for the solve-it-yourself mystery. Like you I managed to figure out the twist, but the ingenious and purely academic motive eluded me. I think this is one of the finest examples of an academic detective novel. And it's a true academic mystery unlike some which borrow the term merely because the book is set in the environs of a university but never addresses the life of academia. The humor in this books helps immeasurably, too.

Holly Vance said...

I do this all the time. When I finish one book, I don't need to rush to the bookstore, I just need to wander over to my bookcase and shop there. And yes, I still read books, not eBooks.