A writer investigates the murder of her former Oxford professor in this novel set in the 1930s.
When biographer and poet Catherine Tregowyn gets an invitation to Somerville College, Oxford, for her ex-tutor’s farewell dinner, she little suspects that the sedate occasion will include murder. Catherine thought the summer weekend in 1934 would be a pleasant time to see Dr. Sarah Sargent on her retirement as well as old friends and places. At first, it’s just that, but concern rises when Dr. Agatha Chenowith doesn’t show up for the dinner. Afterward, Catherine and other guests—including “her bête noire,” the Douglas Fairbanks–like Dr. Harry Bascombe—search for the missing don, and Catherine discovers her strangled body. Angered by the detective chief inspector’s ham-handed questioning (he suggests that she and Harry were discovered by Chenowith “canoodling” in the chapel—as if), Catherine realizes she must investigate the killing herself. When Harry hears he’s been implicated, he agrees to join the hunt. Complicating matters, Catherine’s on-again, off-again fiance, Rafael St. John, resurfaces just as Harry is becoming attractive. As the amateur sleuths question witnesses, discover motives, and unearth Chenowith’s secrets, the investigation expands from the personal to the political—putting Catherine’s life at risk as she gets too close to the truth. The setting recalls Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, but the book takes a different turn with its link to English fascism. In general, Vandagriff (Love Unexpected, 2019, etc.) does a fine job of using historical diction and details, although she sometimes falters: Men don’t “vamp,” for example, and a so-called “sonnet” is actually six tetrameter couplets. Puzzlingly, Bascombe is called “Dr. Harry” throughout, something explained only very late in the novel. Still, the well-educated, literary characters and their quarrels over reviews and publishing are enjoyable, and the plot is nicely balanced between tense action and the love triangle. But there’s a lot of repetition, and the conclusion overly depends on Catherine’s making some silly mistakes, such as turning her back on a chloroform-wielding villain.
Not a perfect pastiche but an entertaining historical mystery.