I’d like to get a fundamental contention out of the way: T.H. White’s sole detective novel Darkness at Pemberley came to my attention for the locked room murder that opens it, but I don’t feel it qualifies an impossible crime (the room can be unlocked at will, for one…). Had White made a couple of different narrative choices — not even in the scheme itself, purely in the structure of how he presents the problem — then it could be an ‘impossible alibi’ problem. But he doesn’t. You’re told the guilty party before they’ve had a chance to really fall under suspicion or even mention the alibi they’ve given themself, and so you have a well-that-would-have-been-impossible-if-they’d-been-given-a-chance-to-deny-it crime. Which I’m pretty sure is a new sub-sub-genre, though perhaps not one that we’ll get many further books in…
Anyhoo. Two dead bodies are found in separate buildings directly opposite each other: one a boarding house, the other a Cambridge college. After very little in the way of investigation or suspects, Inspector Buller — by turns peremptorily perceptive and dangerously dense — confronts the person he considers guilty, accuses them, admits that he has no evidence to prove their guilt and they confess and lay the entire scheme out for him. Then (and this is the bit that really defies belief) they tell him they’ve killed someone else and, without stopping to arrest them or arrange a constable to watch them, Buller races off to confirm this…and then that bit of the plot ends.
It sounds stupid because it is stupid, but it’s not like White isn’t trying as at times it is quite wonderfully written:
“It’s extraordinary how remote human beings are from on another. We go here and there like cats, meeting, fraternising, diverging. Sometimes we have alibis and sometimes not, but always, inside, everybody is incalculable and secret, always locked up an impenetrably alone. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”
“You ought to have been a poet,” said the doctor.
“Not nowadays,” replied the Inspector, and shook his head.
It starts out as a neat little problem embellished by superbly intelligent touches of insight and deduction (the manner in which they ascertain the order of the murders is completely brilliant, even if the precise situation of the second murder is unlikely in the extreme) which is doing slightly more than just trotting out the tropes and making a half-decent job of it — much to my delight we even get three maps:
But, well, White clearly doesn’t want to write that kind of book, so we get the above-mentioned accusation and confession, the maps of no value at all (out Greek Coffining previous disappointment king The Greek Coffin Mystery) and then we move on.
The remaining two-thirds of the book is effectively three set-pieces, of which the first and third are very good — if reading like something from a sensationalist adventure novel published about 15 years earlier — and actually reveal our antagonist to be rather neglected in the realisation of their cruelty and ingenuity. It’s a shame the structure of this requires them to suddenly becomes a mixture of Fu Manchu, Dracula, and Hannibal Lecter, because if White had spent a little more time establishing them as a person it would be felt all the more powerfully.
But then characterisation doesn’t appear to be much on White’s mind. One quick WW1 flashback/dream aside, Buller can be typified by the fact that all his blood rushes to the smaller of his heads at the mere mention of The Lady of the Piece, and when she isn’t insisting on putting herself in the way of danger (much to Buller’s unalloyed delight, the selfish prig) she’s just sort of there for him to become awkward around. There are also some servants. And a kind of man-of-all-trades. It cements this as a kind of Victorian undertaking (no-one actually says “the bounder!”, but it wouldn’t be at all out of place) superimposed on a sort of pre-emptive 1970s toughness. The fact that none of these people ever cropped up in a novel again won’t be felt too great a shame, though the villain would have made a superb sub-Moriarty if someone else had utilised him against their own Sherlock derivative.
The superb sense of atmosphere engendered within Pemberley is quite something — considering how compact the footprint of the action is, White strings it out to feel like a country-wide manhunt at times. If published in 1917 this would achieve more than curiosity value as a rarefied example that could legitimately be laid down as a key step in the evolution of the crime novel. Alas, White is late to the party, so this is more a curio for the insatiable than some necessary sustenance for connoisseurs.
Tipping My Fedora: This is in fact a book so full of ideas, wit and invention that at times it does feel a bit like several books compressed into one.
Kate Macdonald: Our frustration from the characters having to rely on leaving messages for each other from public telephones is something that readers have only experienced in the last 15 years: before that, public telephones were the only way for amateur detectives to stay in touch with a manhunt, and we took them for granted. So much necessary tension has been lost from modern detective fiction by the mobile phone.