In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle returns to the Golden Age of detective fiction with this crime classic
Before Colin Dexter breathed new life into the genre with his Inspector Morse novels published from 1975 onwards, the Oxbridge crime novel was already a sizeable subgenre within detective fiction: there was the Queen of Crime Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Gaudy Night (1935) had helped to blaze a trail for the Oxford crime novel, and in her wake, Bruce Montgomery, under the pen name Edmund Crispin, wrote mystery novels set in Oxford, where he was studying for a degree when he wrote his first, The Case of the Gilded Fly, in 1943. Crispin’s creation, the amateur sleuth Gervase Fen, is also an Oxford don and English Literature professor at the university.
But before these, there was Lois Austen-Leigh’s quartet of Cambridge crime novels, of which the 1931 novel The Incredible Crime (British Library Crime Classics) was the first. Now, the British Library have brought the novel back into print as part of their Crime Classics series. Lois Austen-Leigh (1883-1968), who was the great-great-niece of Jane Austen, has languished forgotten in old libraries and second-hand bookshops for over half a century, her novels known only to aficionados of the Golden Age of British crime fiction, lasting around two decades between the two world wars. Even then, as Robert Davies has noted, even experts in the field often haven’t heard of Austen-Leigh. According to Kirsten T. Saxton in her informative introduction to The Incredible Crime, Austen-Leigh even used her more famous ancestor’s writing-desk to pen The Incredible Crime and her three later novels. And in many ways, her strengths as a novelist are the same as Austen’s: not in constructing grand plots or tackling political issues, but in capturing the chatter of the upper-middle-class English drawing-room.
The Incredible Crime has two principal settings: the fictional Prince’s College at Cambridge University, and a country house in Suffolk; Austen-Leigh fuses the country-house mystery with the university crime novel. Prudence Pinsent, the protagonist of The Incredible Crime, is to Austen-Leigh’s novel what Catherine Morland is to her ancestor’s Northanger Abbey, except that she works as a sort of reverse of Austen’s character. She begins by doubting the veracity of country-house murder novels (‘When you go to stay in a country house, you don’t step on corpses or meet blood trickling down the front stairs’) only to have their truth confirmed when she goes to stay at the country pile of her cousin, Lord Wellende. The ensuing tale takes in drug-smuggling, murder, and fox-hunting (well, we are in the country in the 1930s, after all).
Austen-Leigh’s life was as fascinating as her writing. She lived in Aldeburgh in Suffolk (the county that provides much of the setting for The Incredible Crime), a town whose best-known resident was Benjamin Britten, who as a young man played the piano for Austen-Leigh and her sister, Honor. Austen-Leigh’s father was Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, providing her with the detailed knowledge of Cambridge college life which informs The Incredible Crime. (Her father’s successor to the provostship would be none other than M. R. James, who seems to have objected to Austen-Leigh’s novel because at one point a character is described as swearing for a full two minutes. This seems hardly surprising when we remember that James led the campaign to have Radclyffe Hall’s pioneering lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness banned for its mild sexual content.)
Lois Austen-Leigh’s obscurity is undeserved. With The Incredible Crime (British Library Crime Classics) she wrote an early example of the British university crime novel, and although her links to Jane Austen shouldn’t automatically grant her a measure of immortality, it is baffling, given Austen’s deification as the most celebrated female writer in English, that her descendant’s successful career as a novelist should have been airbrushed from literary history. The Incredible Crime is a gripping and entertaining crime novel from the Golden Age of the genre, written by an author with her ancestor’s ironic wit and gift for social observation. These aspects of The Incredible Crime above all others make it worth spending a rainy Saturday afternoon with.
You can buy The Incredible Crime from the British Library shop here.
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Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.