A Review of The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh
As if I didn’t already love Golden Age murder mysteries enough, this one came with the added incentive of an author related to Jane Austen (1). Who could resist?
The Incredible Crime came out in 1931 and was penned by JA’s great-great niece – or should I say ‘neice’ as JA herself always misspelled it – Lois Austen-Leigh (1883 -1968). Apparently she wrote her books on Jane Austen’s desk, later donated by her ‘neice‘ to the British Library. (Mm, pity I don’t have any nieces, they’re starting to sound extremely useful.)
I was also attracted by the academic environment of much of the story. The Cambridge University setting is beautifully realised, as indeed it should be by someone who in real life was the neice, sorry, niece of the Provost of King’s College, Augustus Austen-Leigh and his wife Florence Lefroy Austen-Leigh (2). In case all of these Austens weren’t enough, there are even a couple of cheeky references to JA herself and Northanger Abbey.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the heroine of the novel, Prudence Pinsent, is the spinster daughter of the Master of the fictional Prince’s College (I particularly enjoyed this as I made up my own Oxford College for my first murder mystery) (3). Prudence herself is well over 30 but doesn’t look it, and although a clergy daughter and generally dignified, will swear like a trooper when provoked. Her main ambition in life at first seems to be gaining as many months as possible in the countryside for fox-hunting.
One definitely is fed the inside scoop over port in the ‘Senior Combination Room’ and the cosiness of afternoon tea and college gossip at a don’s fireside. Reminiscences of the eccentricities of past academics and students add authenticity and spice to the atmosphere. For example, join me in a Professor’s rooms:
“His man came in with a bright copper kettle which he put on the fire; it started to sing at once. He then drew the curtains and brought in an ample tea, putting a plate of hot cakes in the fender. Nothing more comfortable could be imagined.” (4)
The other very authentic aspect of the setting is the author’s descriptions of the Fenland country around Cambridge and Ely and stretching towards the east coast, which was very reminiscent of Dorothy Leigh Sayers’ 1934 mystery The Nine Tailors. Austen-Leigh writes:
“They turned into the flat fen country and drove at a reasonable pace. On a bridge over a broadish bit of water they pulled up for a moment. ‘This is very fascinating,’ said Prudence, ‘is it a ‘drain’, the Ouse, or the Cam, I wonder?’ ‘I think,’ said Thomas, ‘that this is what you might call a drain – it’s the New Bedford Cut. It was made I don’t know how long ago by some Duke of Bedford, and cuts off a long bend in the Ouse; we shall pass the depleted bit of river farther on.’ ‘Is this how you get from Cambridge by water to the sea?’ ‘No, you do that by going down the Cam into the Ouse by Ely, by Denver Sluice into the Wash.’ (5) (I chose that quote because I thought Sayers’ fans would enjoy talk of Dukes and Denver!)
The descriptions of the Suffolk coast are also splendid, as are the wonderful meals and rooms enjoyed by Prudence stopping off at Ipswich at the ‘Great White Horse’ Inn (1518 with a Georgian facade). It was also used by Dickens and by his creation Pickwick, and it made me want to go there immediately. How disappointing to look it up online and find that it closed as an inn in 2008, is now part-Starbucks and is to be made into a business centre by the local council. Apparently the 16th century builders failed to take into account the 21st century desire for en suite.
As with many of the books of this period, it can be hard to visualise the characters accurately as to their age – everyone is so tweedy and old fogeyish and smokes a pipe if male. And one doesn’t necessarily pick up on the hints about the women from their appearance and habits either. I was continually astounded that everyone was about 20 years younger that I had first assumed. The way an “independent” woman is described is very different to how we would describe a single woman today, much of which we might find laughable. This also applies to the attempt at ‘romance’ in the story – if you’re a single woman who values her independence, be prepared to choke at the ending! Again, I can’t help but compare this to Dorothy L Sayers’ far superior attempt at romance in a detective novel set in the academic world in the glorious Gaudy Night.
If I am taking my time getting round to the plot itself, perhaps it is because this was the least compelling part of the book for me. Suspected drug smuggling and chemical experiments at the university are the substance, but unfortunately much of the searching for smugglers in underground tunnels reminded me of Famous Five novels, no doubt unfairly as Austen-Leigh’s book preceded Enid Blyton’s by about ten years. (I think it was the unscrewing of a window seat to discover a tunnel that really did it, although no doubt such things existed aplenty in ancient coastal country houses!)
In view of the many reminders of Sayers’ work that this book sparked off in me, I thought I would consult the new collection of Sayers’ crime reviews from the early thirties (6) to see if she had anything definitive to say on her contemporary and part-namesake. But sadly neither this book nor the other three by Lois Austen-Leigh were among them. However, I did open the book at another review (7) to see that I had underlined Dorothy’s succinct criticism of what apparently had already become a cliché by 1933: “rather too much secret passage and dopery”. I couldn’t have put it better, Dorothy! I, for one, will now be forever wary of what people are really up to at night when they claim to have been out “duck-shooting”.
But I can’t resist finishing by returning to the Jane Austen references. A tobacco-smoking don in Cambridge is horrified at the thought of possible drug-smuggling at the university and has to go to a service at King’s College Chapel to “take the nasty taste out of my mouth and make me feel clean again.” I am pleased to report that after listening to Scripture and the singing of hymns “he left the place feeling like a different man.” (8) And he was the one who felt he had the courage to quote Jane Austen at a CID officer, using the words of Henry Tilney to Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey:
“If I understand you rightly, you have formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to… Consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” (9)
I would give The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh 5/5 for Setting, 4/5 for Characters, and 3.5/5 for Plot.
For my latest novel Murder and Mr Rochester, see: www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?p_id=789
(1) Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime, British Library, London, 2017, edited by Martin Edwards. A reprint of the 1931 edition published by Herbert Jenkins. Available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=lois+austen-leigh
(2) See Introduction to the novel by Prof Kirsten T Saxton.
(3) Jeanette Sears, A Murder in Michaelmas, Piquant Editions, Carlisle, 2012. See www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?page_id=27
(4)Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 65%, loc.1979 of 3092 in e-version.
(5) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 10%, loc.294 of 3092 in e-version.
(6) Martin Edwards (ed), Taking Detective Stories Seriously: the Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers, Tippermuir Books, Perth, 2017.
(7) ibid., p108, in her review of Watch the Wall by Laurence W Meynell (1933).
(8) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 54%, loc.1646 of 3092 in e-version.
(9) ibid., 53%, loc.1620 of 3092 in e-version.