As settings go, many authors of mystery and detective stories have found the English university town of Oxford to be the perfect combination of familiar, beautiful, memorable, and sinister. What passions, resentments, and jealousies could be bottled up in the ramshackle array of ancient stone staircases, senior common rooms, libraries, cloisters, and halls? Set in a seemingly undying landscape immortalised by painters and poets (Matthew Arnold springs to mind), Oxford is a city at once beautiful and, to the right viewer or reader, pregnant with menace. Think of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, J.C. Masterman’s An Oxford Tragedy, Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, and, of course, the Inspector Morse novels of Colin Dexter: all use the ancient university town in this way, as a backdrop for humanity’s worst moments, from the venial to the mortal.
To that partial list, add Robert Robinson’s 1956 maiden effort, Landscape with Dead Dons. Robinson, who made a long and well-regarded career in the BBC after he came down from Exeter College, Oxford, also wrote this single detective novel featuring Inspector Autumn of Scotland Yard. An undergraduate called Nicholas Flower has found that Paradise Lost has been defaced by person or persons unknown, and Autumn, although not a University man, has been sent to Warlock College to investigate. There is concern among the dons of Warlock, especially as a new and unexpected work by Chaucer, The Boke of the Lion, has appeared, and is set to take the world by storm. However, it seems that something darker is afoot when Manchip, the Vice-Chancellor of Warlock, is discovered dead, propped up among the statues on the College roof, a dessert knife stuck in his back.
As Autumn struggles to make sense of the mystery in the face of a second murder, he must also not only descend into the bowels of the stacks beneath the Bodleian library, but clamber about on roofs set just below the dreaming spires, and venture into the surprisingly dangerous streets of Oxford itself. With a gleeful tangle of red herrings and the unfortunate outcome of a visit to Parson’s Pleasure by the Ladies’ Eight, Landscape with Dead Dons moves between farce and noir with some fun, and a good deal of undergraduate humour. Somewhat appropriately, considering the reappearance of a lost Chaucer, the smuggling of pornographic books plays a role in the plot, but are the naughty texts and their conveyancer anything more than red herrings? And from naming the women’s college Walpurgis (compare to the scholars resident in Warlock) to inflicting upon the characters such monikers as Orson Dogg, Balboa Tomlin, Archangel, Flower, Bum, Egg, and Kant, not to mention Mrs. and Miss Spectre, Robinson was clearly having fun in his quiet way.
The mystery is fairly straightforward, and the clues provided are clear enough that modestly attentive readers will reach the conclusion slightly before Inspector Autumn. Indeed, although the story advances, and characters are introduced when necessary to move the plot forward, the action of the story feels somewhat predictable, as though the events being read could not genuinely happen in the world outside of book covers. This being the case, we are left with a number of set pieces, vaguely reminiscent of the already-mentioned Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin, a story which ends on a mad chase through the very same streets and by-ways of the ancient University town, but nevertheless survives the central character’s deliberate assault on the fourth wall. While not exactly derivative of the earlier works, one wonders if, without them, Robinson would have had anything at all to go on. But it is in the nature of a city like Oxford to be a literary inspiration. So many young lives have been shaped by it that there would be a far more remarkable state of affairs if books were not written about it.
Ultimately, Landscape with Dead Dons is worth reading, if for nothing else, as a note from the past, from a world that, despite the best sort of conservatism, has largely gone the way of Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gipsy, and faded from view. It also merits reading for what it was and is; a light-hearted rag on youth, scholarship, and the heady mixture of a world which those two things can beget. Four stars.
Reviewed 20 May 2016.