by Lois Austen-Leigh
Aged Like A Chip-Shop Vinegar Rather Than A Fine Wine
If you want murder mystery this is probably not the book for you – the body doesn’t appear until very late in the book. That is not to says there isn’t mystery to be tackled, simply that there is a notable shortage of bodies in libraries, as it were. Which is surprising as the story is set between Cambridge University and a contemporaneously typical Old Country House which surely must have had perfectly good library offering oodles of potential for simply dozens of bodies. Sadly this was an opportunity completely over-looked by Miss Austen-Leigh.
Which is a shame because it almost certainly would have made it a more appealing read.
I wanted to love this book. I loved the main character Prudence. I loved her name. I loved her independence. I loved the way she freely cursed whenever she felt like it, despite being a Bishop’s Daughter. I loved the setting. I loved the idea of smuggling. But then there was the rest of the book.
It is expected, when reading books from another era, to have to make allowances for the social norms and prejudices of the time, and I am very good at that. Golden Era crime is one of my favourite, and most-read genres. I am used to making those allowances. But this time I found I just couldn’t get past how deeply steeped the story was in a very narrow social and moral ideology , and how dated and exclusive the expression of those ideas was. The whole concept, for example, of judging someone to be upstanding and reliable based on the understanding of what type of ‘hunter’ they are is so archaic that it is rendered laughable in the worst way.
There are many books that are, and feel, dated but which maintain a literary integrity because they are solid, well-written and well plotted. So their antiquity becomes not only forgivable but remains a quintessential part of their nature. Unfortunately in the case of The Incredible Crime the distance in time seems to have just emphasised the books position as a froth piece. As a result things that may have been forgivable in other cases (making up a drug and the side-effects of it that you then don’t have to name) serve to make the story, and by extension the characters and their values seem silly and trite. Although the fact that they are silly and trite also contributes to that impression. Where most of it’s contemporaries, whilst being very distinctly products of their time, manage to remain largely on the side of ‘historically charming’ this book serves as a rather brutal reminder of the classism, sexism and elitism that most of us are glad to have left behind.
Having said all of that, once I’d got to grips with the fact that a body wasn’t appearing any time soon, and the outrageously chauvinistic social mores I found that there was a reasonably engaging mystery to be cracked. I am sure that there are many people out there who will enjoy this and be able to ignore all the bits that made me twitch. I, sadly am still twitching.