The Incredible Crime – A Cambridge Mystery by Lois Austen-Leigh

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I was so looking forward to this volume in the British Library Crime Classic series. Cambridge, mystery and a 1930s setting; collectively very tempting. A woman writer as well? It sounded so good, yet I am lukewarm about this novel. I liked the characters, the Cambridge setting was good, and there were some deliciously funny sections, but overall the effect was less than impressive.

This book starts with promise. A card game with some of the wives of Cambridge academics, and the memorable Prudence Pinsent, independent daughter of the Master of Prince’s College. Immediately I was baffled. Why was she casting criticism and indeed a book across the room when she was supposed to be playing cards? I suppose it allowed the author to introduce the idea of her colourful (!) language and independent spirit, but I think it is typical of the confusing nature of this book. It looks as if she is to be drawn into a mystery which affects a tight Cambridge circle, but then we travel to an obscure bit of the coast. We then hear all about smuggling, but that seems to tail off into a feudal description of a country estate. Prudence disappears for no good reason, only to appear in the midst of a description of fox hunting which would probably appeal to those interested in the finer points of such pursuits, but left me bewildered.

There are some great characters in this book. Mrs Skipwith deals with a delicate matter, and an ex MI5 person is caught out. I was impressed with the way each character was given a character, back story, lots of detail. Maybe that was the problem. This story moved around so much to accommodate these characters and the rather tenuous mystery. At least one of the characters seems to rejoice in several names, “Ben”, “Wellende” and “his Lordship.” I was confused by cousins and other family links which seemed fluid, at least. I was struggling to follow just who was who, let alone what they all allegedly did in this context.

The main character, Prudence, was alternately trying to solve the mystery and abandoning any interest in it; as her devotion to fox hunting seems vary with the day. A romance is woven in, but is ambiguous to say the least. Prudence is in some ways the main character of the novel, but she seems to disappear for sections, which makes her element of the book disjointed and inconsistent.

The main issue with this book is that it is inconsistent. At once it tries to be a Cambridge story, a country house mystery, a crime novel as well as a romance. It is terrific in parts, and possibly needed to be longer to tie up all these strands. It is a comprehensive period piece, as a collection of characters it succeeds, but the overall effect is confusing and not the satisfying read that I had anticipated.

There has been a bit of a gap since my previous post. An election got in the way, as did a conference on rebellion in the late eighteenth century. Add in some events at the Derby Book Festival, and you get the idea. I went to hear Sarah Perry talking about the Essex Serpent, which means that I now have a signed unread copy…Watch this space…

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