The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh

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The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh

Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A murder mystery from the golden age cutting across the Country House and the closed world of academia. A solid plot, but overlaid with a lovely light satirical flavour.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: May 2017
Publisher: British Library Publishing
ISBN: 978-0712356022

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Prudence Pinsent flings her novel across the room. Unutterable bilge is her description of the typical country house murder mystery of romantic novels. The deliberate irony of this is that The Incredible Crime is precisely one such novel.

Prudence has a point when she says that when you go to stay in a country house, you don't step on corpses or meet blood trickling down the front stairs. True enough, but as our remarkable heroine is about to find out, when you go to stay in country houses you don't necessarily 'meet' everything that is going on. It's a truism that everyone has secrets, and those of us from the lower orders can't help thinking as that them as lives in the big 'ouse probably 'as more than most.

Of course, those of us of the lower order also have a tendency to drop our aitches, especially in times of worry or excitement.

There are two ways of taking this novel. It is either a reasonably good yarn, typical of the golden age of detective fiction, or it is a very subtle satire on the same. The opening scene where Prudence flings her book across the room, and we then learn that she has been reading whilst playing Bridge, to the only slight annoyance of her companions suggests the latter.

It is certainly much more fun read in that light. The plot holds together well enough, if you want to take it simply, but layer a slight varnish of Wodehousean humour across the page and it takes flight.

The scene shifts between two staples of the closed room mystery genre: the Cambridge College and the Country House. Prudence links the two. She is daughter to the master of Prince's College, in her thirties, way too sensible and outspoken to be married. Adventurous, wayward (by the mores of the time) and yet she rides side-saddle (because she can't stay on astride?) and as we'll see is as feeble and romantic as the next woman when it comes to it.

Forgive the spoilers (they're nothing to the main plot) but yes she will fall in love, unexpectedly. Yes she will squeal and jump up onto a table to avoid a rat or some such. It is what gals do…even gals who go hell for leather over fences after defenceless foxes, or drop down into the kind of oubliette that any schoolboy that ever lived in the house would know about, but seems to have been hidden from the entire world courtesy of a couple of screws and a window seat cushion, without a care as to how she's going to get back out again.

The detail, you see, is all a bit silly. So to enjoy the book, either you skim over it and treat it as wallpaper, of no import, or you bring it front and centre and lap up the bilge, the unutterable delicious ridiculousness of it.

The actual plot concerns goings on at the Wellende estate in Suffolk. There are rumours of smuggling. The coastguard (an old friend of Prudence) intercepts her on her way to the estate (owned by a cousin of course) and for no valid reason entrusts her with the whole suspicion. Smuggling? At Wellende? Never in the whole wide world, think the Cambridge elite. But of course, for centuries and why not? think their country cousins approvingly. Of course it might come down to exactly who is smuggling, and exactly what is being smuggled.

It is for Prudence to discover and prove the guilt or innocence, of whichever of her coterie she feels most affinity with. One way or another she is connected with all sides: policemen, suspects, toxicology and entomology professors, coastguards, housemaids, the cousins who haven't spoken for decades over some family feud that no-one mentions. Come to think of it, what exactly is she doing taking the motor launch out beyond the mouth of the river, insistently all on her ownsome…?

Austen-Leigh was the great great niece of Jane Austen. Jane had been dead over 60 years before Lois came into the world, but like her forebear Lois grew up the daughter of a rector, and so in many ways had exactly the same (updated) experience in terms of manners and society as her famous ancestor. She also had the same sharp eye and ear, and – I suspect – the same wicked sense of humour.

The introduction to this British Library Vintage edition by Kirsten T Saxton confirms that Cambridge at least holds true in many ways to this inter-war depiction of its foibles.

Like many of the novels from the 'golden age' The Incredible Crime from its title onwards suffers from a naivety that seems extreme to a 21st century reader, but there is no point reading books from the period unless we try to put ourselves into the period in which they were written, as a first appreciation. They need to be understood in that context first and foremost. The fact that they can still delight and still hold relevance over 85 years later has to make us re-appraise the skill of the writer concerned.

It's not for everyone, but I read it in two sittings and smiled most of the way through.

Oh, and no, I did not guess the ending.

Reasons enough there for me to want to check out Austen-Leigh's other three novels which I'm hoping are also making their way back into print.

For more from the golden age we heartily recommend Coroner's Pidgin by Margery Allingham or for a more literary take on life in the 1930s the master is undoubtedly Evelyn Waugh, we'll recommend A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

Buy The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh at Amazon.com.


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