Friday, 2 January 2015

Forgotten Book - Disgrace to the College

I was tempted to make a new year resolution to read all the Golden Age books that I've acquired over the years, and shamefully failed to get round to reading, before I tried to add any more to my collection. But I knew it's a resolution I'd fail to keep. I did toy with the idea of listing some of them and seeking recommendations from readers of this blog as to which to prioritise, and perhaps I'll do that one of these days. In the meantime, my Forgotten Book for today is one I've laid my hands on only recently, and which has jumped the queue, partly because of its brevity.

Disgrace to the College, written by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, and first published in 1937 is unusual on at least three counts. First, it's a novella, rather than a full-length novel. Second, it's a locked room mystery; the Coles wrote one or two short stories featuring locked room puzzles, but as far as I know, this is their longest locked room story. Third, their most regular detective, Superintendent Wilson, is absent, and the detecting is done by one of their second string characters.

The book is divided into two parts. "Michaelmas Term" is set at St Mark's College, Oxford, and we are presented with a fictitious version of the Senior Common Rooms that Douglas Cole, himself an Oxford academic, knew very well. A good deal of scorn is heaped on college politics, which are presented credibly, if in a rather long-winded way. Someone who ought to know told me that, if college politics are frequently vituperative, Oxbridge college politics tend to be ten times worse, and that seems to have been Cole's view.

Two issues are vexing the College authorities. First, a South African Rhodes scholar called Sam Barrett is making waves with his misbehaviour and laziness. Second, an elderly and irascible Estates Bursar is presiding over a mysterious decline in the College's wealth. These two narrative strands occupy the first part of the book. In the second part, "Trinity Term", things have moved on, and Sam's life has undergone a remarkable change. On to the scene comes the Honourable Everard Blatchington, who features in a number of books by the Coles. His arrival conveniently coincides with a death by shooting in a locked room....

The puzzle is quite nicely done. I think it was a wise decision not to pad the story out into a full-length novel; perhaps a decision the Coles might have benefited from taking more often (but then, getting novellas published was far from easy before digital publishing changed the landscape.) The Oxford setting is captured competently, if not with dazzling flair. There is interest in the passing glances at covert homosexuality (at a time when homosexual acts were criminal offences) in college life, and the use of local pubs as brothels catering for male students who were frustrated by college rules designed to prevent hanky-panky with the opposite sex. All in all, one of the better Coles stories that I've come across (though I have numerous gaps in my reading of them.); This one was drawn to my attention some time ago by a Golden Age expert, but proved far from easy to track down. In true Oxford manner, it merits at least a middle Second, if not quite a First..  


Philip Amos said...

I am all too well-acquainted with academic politics. In general, they make any goings-on in the executive suites of business conglomerates look mighty tame. I think Cole's view of Oxbridge politics in his own time was very true. Now, I doubt if they are different from other universities, for changes at Oxbridge in general have been immense. The passing of the, often indolent, bachelor don with too much time for mischief has I think played a large part in this. A fascinating read with much to say about all this is Adam Sisman's biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, which I recommend highly. And it is not without mysteries within.

It furnished me with not a few chuckles, and perhaps most when I read that A.L. Rowse asked Trevor-Roper, "Why are you so nasty to people?" I literally did a double-take at that for, and in keeping with the Trevor-Roper theme, I might just as well have read that Hitler asked Heydrich why he was so nasty to Jews.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Philip, and happy new year to you. Your comments about the Sisman book definitely intrigue me!

Kelly Robinson said...

I have a fondness for academic settings. This sounds like a nice read. Thanks for the review.