But first things first, I must thank Sergio once again over at TIPPING MY FEDORA for his wonderful review which introduced me originally to T.H.White's one and only mystery. Link. And Kate MacDonald's incisive review is also one to check out. Link.
I was familiar with White only as the author of THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING and other Arthurian books and such, but never even suspected he'd written a good old rip-roaring mystery - one I instantly fell in love with and hated to see end. (I even slowed down my reading to make the story last longer.) Yeah, I was hooked good and proper.
White's book begins like many English mysteries of that period with the discovery of a body - a Cambridge don dead in a locked room (yes, one of those). But then that's followed very quickly by the twin discoveries of two other bodies - that of a student and a bit later, a school laborer named Rudd. Are the three murders connected? You bet.
Okay so we're off and running. But here's the switch: early on we know who the killer is. So I suppose this is what you'd call an 'inverted' mystery. I'm usually NOT a big fan of those. However, as we know, there's always an exception to any rule. If you're clever enough, smart enough and write well enough, you get away with the unorthodox.
Scotland Yard is on the case from the beginning in the form of Inspector Buller and he soon figures out who's responsible for the three murders. But here's the quandary: there's no evidence. (This is 1932 - forensics aren't what they are today.) The case has no future, Buller's superiors surmise that the professor killed the student (who knows why?) and then killed himself. We don't always know the motives of these things. Case closed.
But who slit Rudd's throat?
Frustrated by his inability to bring the crimes home to the actual killer and feeling guilty because he didn't save the third victim, Buller quits the force. He even goes so far as to contemplate murder himself in order to stop a madman whom he is convinced will kill again. Is there ever any justification for taking the law into your own hands? Especially for an ex-policeman? Questions Buller ponders and his conclusion may not be yours but it sure as heck was mine.
This all occurs after he's confronted the killer and told him what he suspects and the killer has admitted that yes indeed, he committed the heinous crimes and isn't it too bad that there's nothing Buller can do about it. Tsk. Tsk.
A dispirited and despondent Buller goes off to stay at an estate owned by friends of his. A brother and sister who are basically social recluses despite their wealth. The brother has served time in prison for a crime he did not commit but for which everyone (except Buller and a few others) believes him guilty.
But wait a minute, you're thinking, where does this Pemberley business come in?
Well, the estate in question is THE Pemberley of Jane Austen's book (aha!), the brother in question is named Charles Darcy and his sister is Elizabeth - a family name (which readers of Austen will find familiar) handed down. BUT - and here's the catch, THAT'S the only link with anything Austen-wise and in fact there is no mention of it at all except that we're made to understand (almost as a throwaway) that the current Darcy brother and sister are descendants. So forget about that, it's not important though the house itself plays a HUGE part in the ensuing tale.
The brother rarely leaves Pemberley because of the ill-will directed at him by townspeople and residents of the area and he is chafing at the bit to do something, anything to take his mind off his troubles. When Buller shows up with his story of a murderer whom no one can touch though he has already killed at least three people - an outraged Darcy goes off half-cocked (without telling Buller) to Cambridge to kill the killer. Actually what he does is have a confrontation with him - just the sort of thing you must never EVER do - but when he leaves the murderer is very much alive. Uh-oh.
Though this is 1932, this episode in the story has a very Victorian feel to it, but what the heck. The important thing is that Darcy needs to bring himself to the bad guy's attention so that the rest of the story can take place. It's as good a way as any.
Back at Pemberley, a dismayed Buller tells Charles that his ill-advised meeting with a remorseless killer cannot have a happy end. But Darcy, brother and sister, scoff at this. The fact that the killer has already done away with three victims doesn't frighten them very much. They believe Buller is letting his imagination run away with him. HUH? I don't know about you, but three dead bodies impress the heck out of me.
Even Elizabeth (whom Buller is secretly in love with) thinks Buller is exaggerating the danger. That is until the first and then the second attempt on Charles' life.
Just for the wicked fun of it, the killer begins toying with his prey. Irksome shadows, strange noises, bumps in the night and other spooky manifestations make Charles regret his impulsiveness. It soon becomes obvious that the murderer is hiding somewhere on the estate, mysteriously managing to elude Buller, the Darcys and their loyal staff.
Pembereley and its inhabitants are under siege. The Darcys can't ask the police for help because they would not be believed - I wonder that Buller didn't have a friend on the force whom he could turn to, but apparently he didn't. They do however have a doctor friend who arrives to join in the hide and seek which takes up about three quarters of the book. This action is mostly centered at Pemberley itself as the killer has obviously found a way to maneuver in the dark, moving about the house like a spectre in the night.
White's style isvery much of the Wilkie Collins school with a dose of Christie and a touch of Dickson Carr (in the locked room part - the mystery of which is solved early on) but written at a much quicker pace. We know who the killer is but where the heck is he? How is he managing to elude his pursuers while never, apparently, leaving the house? The mystery deepens when another brutal murder occurs.
Those of you who think of Pemberely as hallowed ground will, no doubt, be shocked by all this. But all I can say is: get over it.
DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY is a darkly sinister but fast-paced tale which rattles the imagination - in a good and creepy way. I actually had to stop reading and take tension breaks during the heart of the action - it's THAT thrilling I loved it! Oh and of course near the end, Buller has to take on the killer single-handedly while Charles and Elizabeth's lives hang in the balance. It is to be expected, but it still works when done this well.
My only minor quibble is that the end when it comes seems a bit too hasty, but other than that, the book is pretty near perfect.
If this was going to be White's one and only mystery, it's just as well it was a doozy. But I still wish he'd written a few more.
Todd Mason is doing hosting duties this Friday at his blog, Sweet Freedom so don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are recommending today.