The Cambridge Murders and The Crossing Places : two stories set in East Anglia

Cambridge MurdersI was in conversation with my brother-in-law the other day and, among many other things, we talked of Glyn Daniel. I knew of him as an archaeologist and author of books of popular archaeology (e.g. The First Civilisations and Megalith Builders of Western Europe) and editor of Antiquity, whereas Francis knew him, and mentioned that he had written two detective novels – The Cambridge Murders and Welcome Death. The former was originally published under the pseudonym Dilwyn Rees, although subsequent reprints and his second book were published under his own name (is there an antonym for pseudonym, and has it an adjective that is the equivalent of pseudonymous?).

This struck a vague chord in my memory, and a day or two later I had a rummage and discovered that I owned a copy of The Cambridge Murders, although had never read it. Once the decision to rectify this omission was made I enjoyed the book. It’s a typical detective story of its age (published in 1945 but set just prior to World War II), is well-written with a compelling plot.

Dr Daniel obviously believed in “write about what you know”, so the story is set in Cambridge and its environs, and he features himself in the book as the protagonist, Sir Richard Cherrington, a lecturer in archaeology at Fisher College.

There’s a murder in the aforesaid (fictional) Fisher College, Cambridge, all the usual eccentric academics, and a little annotated plan to help elucidate some of the arcane collegiate customs. I did decide (correctly) early on who the murderer (probably) was, but half the fun of reading a book like this is the intricacies of the plot, the well-crafted language, and the period setting; it is also somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure Glyn Daniel saw it as a bit of light relief from his more academic writing.

And how much did people routinely drink in those days, anyway? I’ve wondered this before. Permanently paralytic posh people, as they seemed to start before lunch and continue, on and off, until bedtime: “I see you are a man of taste, Superintendent,” said Sir Richard. “It is, as you rightly appreciated, a time only for beer. It is a little too early for sherry, and one’s palate should never be spoiled before dinner with the rougher and more violent drinks made with whisky and gin and other spirits.”; “A glass of wine, gentlemen? Sherry? Madeira? Or, if you prefer, my man can bring you some draught beer up from the cellar?”; “Have a glass of sherry. Bond seems rather a long time in announcing lunch.”; “Nothing, thank you. This is the one hour of the day when no drink of any kind is possible. I mean the latest post-luncheon tipplings are over by three o’clock, and no civilised person will drink tea before four o’clock” – although, when pressed he has ‘Number 1 Ale slightly mulled with some spice and a light lacing of spirits. Very good for the cold Fen winds.’Welcome Death

At one point Detective-Superintendent Robertson-Macdonald, having lunched earlier in the day with the Chief Constable – ‘a pleasant social lunch, with a lot to drink and no mention was made of the case throughout’ – decides he can bear it no longer and decides to ‘drive out from Cambridge to the Yellow Barn and have a jolly evening away from the case: lots of drink, good food, perhaps some dancing.’ Then he drives back to Cambridge through the cold night.

I’ve ordered a copy of Welcome Death, the second of the two books featuring Sir Richard Cherrington, and hope that it is as entertaining as the first.

Crossing PlacesDuring the aforementioned brother-in-law conversation another book was mentioned to me: The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (this also sounded familiar until the next day I realised I was thinking of the excellent At the Crossing Places by Kevin Crossley-Holland, both are about liminal places in their own ways). I decided to give it a try, although I must admit I don’t enjoy a great deal of modern detective fiction, often finding it gratuitously unpleasant, tediously formulaic and if in a series boringly repetitive, or just not very well written, and sometimes all of the above. It’s Griffiths’ first novel, and I was pleasantly surprised as it was very well crafted for a first novel; she really does know how to tell a story, I found it progressively harder to put down, near the end walking round the house reading it. Although it finished rather earlier than I expected as there is a chapter of her next novel at the end which is designed to fill up space and disappoint those who assume the book they’ve bought is filled with the current story as one might expect.

The story’s told from the viewpoint of Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist, nearly forty, slightly overweight, a cat-lover with relationship problems, living in a lonely part of the Norfolk coast. The police, investigating the disappearances of two young girls, one ten years ago, the other recent, ask her to help when they find a child’s bones. They turn out to be ancient, but, of course, Ruth becomes entangled in a web of intrigue and red herrings, finding her own life threatened. There are some very good twists and turns, and although I did decide who the criminal was early on (and was right) there were plenty of things thrown in to make me doubt it.Seahenge

Having more than a passing interest in archaeology I did find her explanations of archaeological minutiae to Harry Nelson (the policeman) a little irritating (could he really be that intelligent yet so ignorant?), but they were short and easily skimmed through. The locus is the site of a fictionalised version of Seahenge, she does give credit to Francis Pryor for his ‘marvellous book’, upon which she has obviously drawn heavily.

More unfortunately, Elly Griffiths didn’t “write about what you know” when one gets down to practical archaeology. This is Ruth digging the first set of (Iron Age) bones: ‘This time her trowel grates against metal. Still working slowly and meticulously, Ruth reaches down and pulls the object free from the mud.’ The ‘object’ is a torque. Normal archaeological technique for something like that would be to excavate the block of earth it’s in and excavate it in the lab, rather than wrenching it from the ground. Later on she digs up another in similar fashion; a further bony discovery turns out to be another ancient skeleton (upsettingly and rather fortuitously found in the back garden of the house of one of the missing children), which she excavates single-handed: ‘An hour later, Ruth has bagged up the bones and sent them to the university lab for dating.’

Notwithstanding this slight irritant, this is a book worth reading, and I’ll read more by her, I was particularly taken by her sense of place. Series detectives have to be particularly special to maintain my interest for more than two or three books, so it’ll be interesting to see whether these characters develop enough to hold my interest. Elly Griffiths is a very promising crime writer.

It’s interesting, and many others have written about why so many (and often the more gothic of) detective novels are set in East Anglia. For example: Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Ruth Rendell, Margery Allingham, P D James, Alan Hunter – all have set novels in the region to a greater or lesser extent, some with more success in the descriptive department than others. The list is more extensive if you include the flatter bits of Lincolnshire as being in East Anglia rather than Holland.

Anyone looking back through this blog would notice that it has been more than a little moribund for quite a while, but I guess blogs are supposed to reflect the life and activities of the person writing the blog, so there you are, and I hope it’s going to be a little more active from now on.

P.S. Update 12 October: I’ve now read Welcome Death, and although it was quite enjoyable, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as The Cambridge Murders. In the first book Cherrington is an incompetent amateur sleuth who bumbles, but in the second he’s morphed into a genuine amateur detective. The action has moved from Cambridge to south Wales (Glyn Daniel was born in Barry and started his university education at Cardiff, so he knows the area), the book is much more pedestrian than the first, and far less memorable. The last page of Welcome Death has a lead-in to a third novel with  Cherrington being invited to investigate a murder in France by his friend from the Sûreté, but there were no more detective novels.

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