Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Baffoonery: Murder at Liberty Hall (1941), by Alan Clutton-Brock

the "English race" at play: stoolball
I have arranged with about half-a-dozen of the most intelligent [Cambridge] undergraduates I know, to visit you in the guest-room....I thought it might help, if I told you a little about them....Clutton-Brock is the son of his father; nice, quite clever and much improved since he came up, when he was the silliest young man I've ever seen.

          --F. R. Lucas to T. S. Eliot, undated letter (undated, but presumably February 1926)

Your men all turned up and I liked them all very much indeed.

          --T. S. Eliot to F. R. Lucas (12 February 1926)

That clever and much improved young Cambridge man, Alan Clutton-Brock (1904-1976), was the son of Arthur Clutton-Brock (1868-1924), an Oxford-educated critic, essayist and journalist who once had taken T. S. Eliot to task (bold man!) for having proclaimed Shakespeare's Hamlet "an artistic failure."

Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, Alan had established himself as a popular art critic when in 1941 he published Murder at Liberty Hall, his stab at a detective novel, then still the preferred literary plaything of the Western intellectual classes, although some of the genre's allure from a decade earlier had diminished in the eyes of some of the highbrow types.  T. S. Eliot himself was a great fan of detective fiction (as I have previously discussed on the blog and in an essay, "Murder in The Criterion: T. S. Eliot on Detective Fiction," in Mysteries Unlocked), however equivocal Clutton-Brock's old schoolmate and friend George Orwell may have been about the stuff (another subject I have tackled t the blog).

Murder at Liberty Hall is set at a progressive, co-educational English school.  So-called "progressive education" attracted increasing interest in teaching circles in the UK and US in the 1930s, as the study of child psychology intensified.  Education reformers began to call for curricula not tied to subjects, but rather relating more closely, as one study put it, "to the natural movement of the children's minds."

Dark clouds have gathered over Scrope House.
But don't worry, nothing is taken too seriously.
Traditionalists, as is so often their way, scoffed at such revolutionary notions, and British detective fiction--in many ways, it must be admitted, a conservative branch of literature in the between-the-wars period--tended to go along with this criticism, with mystery writers lampooning progressive education, right along with other seemingly queer and comical innovations of the era such as vegetarianism, nudism, abstract art and Freudian psychology.

Demonstrating that not all skepticism about progressive education came from the political right, however, a half-dozen years before the publication of Murder at Liberty Hall the socialist intellectual couple GDH and Margaret Cole had amusingly mocked ultra-modern schooling in one of their better received detective novels, Scandal at School. (In all likelihood the novel was written mostly by Margaret.)

I am not aware of Alan Clutton-Brock's politics, but the attitude toward Communism expressed in the novel is consistent with the views of George Orwell, who, as I have discussed previously, some people believe may have played a role in the composition of Murder at Liberty Hall.  Clutton-Brock also does not seem so heavyhandedly dismissive of progressive education as the Coles do in Scandal at School.  (See my book on the detective fiction of Henry Wade and the Coles, The Spectrum of English Murder.)  In fact he has a lighter touch all round.

Murder at Liberty Hall was well-received by reviewers not only in the UK but in the US, where the "Englishness" of the story did not prove a turnoff, though the pace was deemed rather on the slow side.  In the Saturday Review William C. Weber commented approvingly on the novel's "sly humor and good puzzle," while Kay Irvin in the New York Times Books Review gave the book a rave notice:

This is one of those gleefully cerebral thrillers.  It is full of quips and cranks and wanton wiles, from the moment the authority on identical twins opens the letter urging him to investigate the mysterious outbreak of pyromania at England's most renowned libertarian boarding school.  It pokes its fun at cricket and at communism, at crime investigation and exhibitionist romanticism, and at all rigid conventions of unconventionality, in education or social life. 

When the romantic poet's wife (herself an earnest and innocent radical) is murdered, a newspaper man assures the scientist detective that "we don't think it fair to give the impression that just because a school's a modern one it's the sort of place where the staff go about murdering one another."  But Mr. Clutton-Brock's owns no repressive proprieties.

The author's burlesque proceeds, however, by slyness, apparent irrelevance and suggestive understatement rather than, say, such horseplay as Elliott Paul's [another witty and learned mystery writer of the period].

The effect is always amusing, even when the method veers a bit to the precious side.  And oh, yes, there's a perfectly good mystery. In fact, as already hinted, there are two. Who killed Susan Dawes, and how, and why?  And ditto with the fires set at Scope Hall.

In Middle America, meanwhile, Ray Wingfield of the Nashville Tennessean praised Murder at Liberty Hall as a superlative example of what he termed "baffoonery" (this a cute play on baffle and buffoonery): "The hyphenated surname is not misleading--'Murder at Liberty Hall' is English, psychological, scholarly, and as a mystery story quite up to standard in baffle, and in this case baffoonery de luxe."  Wingfield allowed, however, that the novel "isn't one of those breathlessly told tales."  It most definitely is not a breathlessly told tale, but you should simply sip and allow yourself to savor the subtle satire.


A friend of mine, a psychologist, often tells me that in his opinion my notoriety has not come by chance. Character, he says, is destiny, whatever that may mean, and if I had not been the kind of exhibitionist who inevitably gets known in Fleet Street, I should never have hit on so exquisitely felicitous a combination of subjects.  I must, he thinks, have instinctively wished to satisfy the mysterious tropisms of journalists with such a talent....Naturally this is not my opinion, but there it is, and I have given this perhaps too lengthy explanation partly as a relief for my feelings and partly to show how it was possible for me to be consulted about a crime, how I came to be invited to Scrope House school, and why I spent some time there posing as a detective.

Murder at Liberty Hall is set shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, in May 1939 to be precise, as German refugees are streaming into England to escape the horrors of the Hitler regime.  The novel is narrated by James Hardwicke, scientist and authority on twins, who rather to his professed mortification has acquired what he calls a "Fleet Street reputation" as an expert on criminal tendencies in identical twins.*

*(The theory that a demonstrable criminal propensity in one identical twin indicates the likelihood of the same in the other plays a major role, incidentally, in The Far Sands, a middling Andrew Garve crime novel I reviewed in the summer.)

When the novel opens, James has been invited by wealthy reformer Mrs. Rachel Eakins to the progressive co-educational school Scope House (a pet project of Mrs. Eakins) to investigate a case of apparent pyromania among the student body.  As Mrs. Eakins explains in her rambling letter, "[T]here is no reason to think that the patient necessarily is a twin, nevertheless we try to think of the unfortunate boy or girl as a patient, and we do need someone who will view the whole problem of crime in the light of really modern science."

James is inclined to ignore this odd invitation (he gets so many of them), but he is pressed into accepting it by his lady friend Caroline Fisher, an enthusiast of the school.  (She hopes to get a post as a schoolmistress there.)  Concerning Caroline, James explains, with splendid British diffidence, "at that time I suppose I was more or less in love [with her]."

refugees were not always welcomed
with wide open arms by segments of
a native populace who didn't believe
that the newcomers would "fit in"
So off James goes with Caroline--his woman Watson, if you will (though Caroline is much less deferential than the dear doctor)--to investigate to the matter of the arson at Scrope House.  There they discover that the headmaster worries about the ramifications of a refugee child being the culprit, which leads to this exchange:

"[W]e've got a lot of refugee children in the school, and goodness knows it's natural enough if one of them should have broken down under the might give a handle to all those ridiculous people who want to stop refuges coming into the country.

They're mostly Jewish children, but we've got several children of intellectuals or left-wing politicians who managed to get away in time. Friedrich Schmidt's boy, for example--he's the most perfectly Nordic creature I've ever seen...."

"Then it's probably him," I said.  "Perfectly Nordic people, without any Jewish blood to keep them sane, are often hopelessly unbalanced."

This exchange should make sufficiently clear that we are dealing with something pleasingly different from  the typical British mystery of its day.

Soon enough, however, James's rather desultory investigation at Scrope House encompasses murder too.  Susan Dawes--onetime novelist ("she's very left-wing now, and that gives her no time for writing") and the wife of poet, essayist and emotional exhibitionist Richard Dawes--expires from a spot of atropine in her sherry (obviously a very die one). 

All is not quite cricket at Scrope House--though you get a lot of the sport in the book!

There is quite a decent murder plot at the heart of Murder at Liberty Hall, but there are also, as in Dorothy L. Sayers's mammoth college mystery opus Gaudy Night, quite a few digressions.  Yet the digressions make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, I think.

I might except the cricket match, which was to me was much more inscrutable than the murder.  However, the idea that some of students at the ostensibly freethinking and nonconformist Scrope House are desperate to play cricket, because they want a taste of what the normal schools do, is an amusing notion:

I was surprised [declares James Hardwicke], and could not help saying so, to learn that the emancipated children of Scrope House should indulge in what, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "may be called the national summer pastime of the English race."

"Oh, it's not my idea, of course," Edgeworth [the headmaster] said, "but the children wanted to play cricket and I didn't see there was anything I could do about it....I very much hoped they wouldn't try to persuade any children to play cricket who mightn't really want to.  Naturally that's what I was afraid of."

"I don't really see," I said, "why there should be more chance of tyranny in connection with cricket then with net-ball, or stool-ball, or whatever it is they play at progressive schools."

"Nevertheless it is so," said Edgeworth, "though I admit there's no obvious reason why."

"Perhaps," I said, "it's because of the immense moral importance attached to cricket and all it's is a ritual which binds the upper-middle classes together, inducing a feeling of both solidarity and virtue.  Rulers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your wickets.  And, naturally, if you won't play, it's as bad as being a Trotskyite in Russia or a Calvinist in Rome.  It's a communion, a sacrament, a love-feast, in which the participators are enabled to perform the most delicate acts of sacrifice for the greater good of the community, the congregation, or, as the cricketers themselves would put it, of the game."

Admittedly this is the kind of improbable speechifying you get from elite characters in PD James mysteries, but it's more entertaining to read in the tongue-in-cheek Murder at Liberty Hall, or at least I found it so.

Sport of smiths?
George Orwell, incidentally, played cricket in school and had, according to Orwell authority  Peter Davisson, "a real affection for the game." It's interesting to compare Orwell's defense of cricket, found in his 1946 review of Edmund Blunden's Cricket Country, with that of Clutton-Brock's in Murder at Liberty Hall, given the fact that, as I have previously discussed, some have argued Orwell might have influenced the writing of Clutton-Brock's detective novel or perhaps even have ghosted it.

In his review of Cricket Country, Orwell complained that cricket "has been denounced by left-wing writers, who imagine erroneously that it is played chiefly by the rich."

For his part Orwell passionately defended informal village cricket, "where everyone plays in braces, where the blacksmith is liable to be called away in mid-innings on an urgent job, and sometimes, about the time when the light begins to fail, a ball driven for four kills a rabbit on the boundary." (Now there is excellent writing.)

Orwell's emphasis here on humble village cricket--the kind Golden Age mystery writer Christopher Bush played and also nostalgically recalled--seems rather different from that of Alan Clutton-Brock in Liberty Hall.

on the march
However, in Chapter 9 of Murder at Liberty Hall a James and the refugee teacher, Rosenberg, discuss Communist Party tactics. This conversation is Orwellian, if you will.

When Rosenberg speculates to James that the deceased Susan Dawes as a committed Communist might have denounced him as a Nazi spy in order to punish him for having left the Party, James, a gentle English liberal, is incredulous. He is schooled by Rosenberg:

"But surely," I said, "you can't think Susan Dawes would be so inconceivably base.  The worst you could say about her, I should have thought, was that she was a rather silly enthusiast."

"My dear Hardwicke," Rosenberg said, "That's where your innocence comes in.  Once you get the idea that any action is justifiable if it's for the good of the party anything can happen.  The ordinary rules mean nothing at all; it's quite incredible, until you see it happen, how quickly a charming, perhaps rather silly enthusiast, as you put it, will develop into a ruthless Machiavellian."

This sort of thing I find much more interesting, and convincing, then the more typical bombast and broadsides against Communism in the British mystery from the period, because one senses in this instance that the author actually actually has some personal experience of the subject.

I don't know that I've gotten across the humor of the novel well, but though that humor is on the dry side, it is most definitely present in the novel.

There was something wrong with Joseph Smith....
On George Joseph Smith, he of brides-in-the-bath infamy:

[E]xperts, so I understand, always say that murderers are just like anyone else, whatever that may mean.  No doubt this is true, though one cannot help feeling that only his presumable imbecile victims could have failed to see that there was something wrong with Joseph Smith.

On a food faddist faculty member:

"I can't imagine why she stays on here," I said.  "It's quite obvious that her nonsense doesn't suit the nonsense of the rest of the people here."

On teaching the schoolchildren the birds and the bees:

"The farm is some way from the school," she said, "but the children often go there when they feel like it.  There's some idea that it's good for them and they're encouraged to pay visits there, even if they don't actually go to work there, as some of them do.  I think the idea is that they should learn the facts of life from watching the farm animals."

The murder plot, incidentally, may have been influenced, I suspect, by recent events in Clutton-Brock's own life--a most intriguing notion to me, but, well, spoilers, don't you know.

Although owing, I think, to its detached first person narration Murder at Liberty Hall has limited emotional impact, in spite of material that offers ample scope for it, the novel nevertheless is an amusing and literate example of late Golden Age mystery; and it would seem to me a natural candidate for reprinting today.  Any takers out there? 



  1. This sounds like an interesting novel I would very much like to read. I was hoping your review would conclude by pointing forward to an imminent re-release by the British Library, Coachwhip or Dean Street Press. I'm presuming it hasn't been picked up (yet)?

  2. Hi, Jonathan, nope, no release, but maybe this will prod someone to do so. I'll be talking about new Coachwwhip and DSP releases soon. I have mentioned this book to DSP, but no longer have contact with the BL editor. However, maybe this will catch his eye, like Mystery in White and Murder of a Lady did. I think it would be a nice one for them, being a one-shot.

  3. I know what's coming from your and DSP, which is a commendable and ambitious effort, but please tell me that one of the new Coachwhip releases is going to be Tyline Perry's The Never-Summer Mystery. I wanted to read that one ever since finishing the superb The Owner Lies Dead.

    1. I have a copy of it, so we should get on to that one. With Coachwhip I am excited about the Roger Scarlett reprints, which will be out shortly. Something else coming is a recently recovered mystery by one of the DSP authors, never previously published. A lost manuscript!

    2. Wait a minute! Let me get this straight. When you say Coachwhip is going to reprint Roger Scarlett, you mean to say that we can look forward to a reprint of the elusive, eye-gougingly expensive Murder Among the Angells? And reprints implies this reissue might come in one of those delightful twofer volumes...

      Why does it all of sudden feel like Christmas?

    3. Oh, yes, all the Scarletts are soon forthcoming. Been a long time coming, at least in English!