Friday, April 6, 2012
Friday's Forgotten Book: DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY (1932) by T.H. White
Friday's Forgotten Books is a weekly meme hosted by Patti Abbott at her blog, Pattinase. Don't forget to check over there and see what other forgotten books other bloggers will be talking about today. Link.
DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY also qualifies as an entry in Bev's Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. Link.
I sound nice and calm so far, don't I?
This is what happened to me with this book, I was thrilled, THRILLED I tell you, to find out that it is now, officially, one of my all time favorite books EVER! Okay, I promised myself I'd stay calm and not hyperventilate, but it's proving difficult. I am still capable of utter and complete delight when I find a book that 'wows' me, wins me over completely - my pulse begins to race, I smile and shake my head in wonderment. "It's happened again!"
But first things first, I must thank Sergio over at TIPPING MY FEDORA for his wonderful review which introduced me to T.H.White's one and only mystery. Link.
Needless to say, I had never heard of this book. I knew White 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 that I'd love and hate 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 caught me off guard. It begins like many mysteries of that period with the discovery of a body - a Cambridge professor found in a locked room (yes, one of those) - but then that's followed very quickly by the twin discovery 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. Inspector Buller of Scotland Yard is on the case from the beginning and he soon figures out who's responsible for 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. 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 Buller 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.
Next, a dispirited and despondent Buller goes to stay at an estate owned by friends of his. A brother and sister who are basically recluses in the neighborhood despite their wealth. The brother has served time in prison for a crime he didn't 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 is THE Pemberley of Austen's book, the brother is named Charles Darcy and his sister is Elizabeth - a family name handed down. 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 that the current Darcy brother and sister are descendants.
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 killer whom no one can touch and who has already killed at least three people - Darcy goes off half-cocked (without telling Buller) to Cambridge to kill the killer. Actually what he does is have a confrontation with him but when he leaves the murderer is very much alive.
Though this is 1932, this episode in the story has a not unpleasant Victorian feel to it, but what the heck. The important thing is that Darcy needs to bring himself to the killer'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 life is now in danger. But Darcy, brother and sister, scoff at this. The fact that the killer has already done away with three people doesn't seem to impress them very much. They believe Buller is letting his imagination run away with him.
Even Elizabeth (whom Buller is secretly in love with) thinks Buller is exaggerating the danger. That is until the first and second attempts on Charles' life. It soon becomes obvious that the murderous villain is hiding somewhere on the estate, mysteriously managing to elude the Darcy's, Buller and the servants all loyal to Charles and his sister.
Just for the wicked fun of it, the killer begins toying with his prey. There's lots of bump in the night, strange noises and shadows and other spooky mischief. Pembereley and its inhabitants are under siege. They can't turn to 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. The 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 writing of all this very 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 eerie, mysterious, fast-paced fun. 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 you haven't read this, drop whatever you're doing and get your hands on a copy of DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY. Make sure nothing urgent is going on in your life at the moment though, because once you sit down to read this, you will be mesmerized. I was. And I don't mesmerize easily.
I'm going to have to finagle my 100 Favorite Mysteries List which I am working on as we speak, because T.H. White's book has definitely made the cut.
If this was going to be White's one and only mystery, it's just as well it was a doozy.