Landscape With Dead Dons
The erudite Robert Robinson, a middle class grammar school boy born in Liverpool, went on to become one of the UK's most enduring, popular and respected broadcasters over a career spanning 60 years. It came as something of a surprise to me when reading his obituary to discover he penned a number of mystery novels back in the 1950s. His first effort, Landscape with Dead Dons, was published shortly after he came down from Oxford University in 1956. I made it my business to track a copy down, which proved troublesome but ultimately bore fruit.
As with many first time novelists, Robinson sticks to the familiar, although I will concede it could hardly be autobiographical. The narrative is set in Robinson's alma mater and revolves around the mysterious murders of two of the dons subsequent to the discovery of a book of poems of Geoffrey Chaucer. Therein after red herrings are dropped like confetti and characters are introduced using a revolving door strategy. The prose is academic and prissy, and hails from a bygone ere. Robinson is unapologetic and self-referential, bemoaning the the brutish signposting of clues in cheap detective novels, yet it is difficult to determine with the passing of time whether Robinson is playing the novel for laughs. You would certainly have to go a long way to find a book where the central characters are called Mr Bum (I kid you not), Autumn, Archangel, and Kant. Indeed one scene where a bunch of nudists attempt to apprehend the murder whilst he attempts his getaway on foot, equally naked, through the streets of Oxford, wouldn't be out of place in a Tom Sharpe novel, were it not for the fact that his work actually pre-dates that of Sharpe's.
Robinson took a dim view of female college students and wrote Walpurgis was large and airy and modern, and had been designed exclusively for big, normal, strenuous, red-legged young women with glasses. It gets worse - [they were taken] to nine or ten Commemoration Balls in succession, returning themselves on each of the nine or ten mornings severely intact. Ouch!
So here's the problem - the women in the book are either pneumatic sirens promiscuous with their affections, or unwanted harridans who use electric razors on their facial hair - again I kid you not.
In the style of a good parlour based detective novel, once the murderer is brought to rights, he sings like a bird, explaining many of the plot twists what would have eluded all but the most diligent reader. Perhaps the taciturn prisoner demanding his solicitor is a modern phenomenon.
There is a context to all of this of course, and not being a connoisseur of the detective novel, I have no idea whether Robinson's book was the norm for the period. At best I can say in this day and age it shouldn't be considered more than an interesting curio from an era when post modernism wasn't required since modernism hadn't arrived at that point.