The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh – Review
By Sandra Callard
The words ‘The Golden Age of Crime Fiction’ echo like the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ to lovers of the genre. We think Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers, John Dickson Carr, and the inimitable Agatha Christie. We are taken back to small English villages, Lords of the Manor, fox hunting and servants. And, of course, we have a local murder, a finite number of possible murderers, and, alongside the police, an extremely talented amateur sleuth who invariably finds the tiny clue that exposes the killer. Oh! for a cosy fireside, a gin and tonic and one of these glorious books to tax our brains for the elusive solution.
Well, help is at hand! British Library Crime Classics have published a list as long as your arm of dozens of these long-gone 1920s to 1930s books, all by writers of the genre who have continually thrilled crime purists in the past. To start me off I have read The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh who happens to be the granddaughter of Jane Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh.
“Feeling of credibility”
Set in Cambridge in 1931, the story contains an amazing number of facts regarding the inner workings of the University, from the etiquette of who is allowed to walk across the grass (obviously only the elite intelligentsia), to the mindset and commitment of those who work and live in a great country house of the period.
Initially the stiff and archaic prose of nearly ninety years ago irritated me, but Austen-Leigh writes with such a simplicity and assurance that she has personal knowledge of her facts, that I soon warmed to her style, which made me feel like a welcome guest. Although the story is fiction, the prevalent intimate knowledge gives the book a wonderful feeling of credibility, and brings the surrounding story, and the personalities who inhabit it, into vibrant life.
The heroine of the book, Prudence, who cannot in any way be called a sleuth, is even so a bright, intelligent and feisty woman who could give today’s liberated women a run for their money. She is deeply concerned when people she loves and admires appear to have become embroiled in what could possibly be drug-running or even worse, and she determines to discover the truth.
The truth involves secrets and criminal matters, and ultimately murder, and Prudence is entirely admirable in the way she deals with the horrors that are surrounding her. There are red herrings, which I fell for, and the necessary surprise exposure of the guilty, which are all very satisfying and cleverly thought-out.
Numerous modern crime writers are so good they will become the classics of the future, but they are worlds apart from the Golden Age writers. Yet there is room for opposites in the crime fiction world, and Austen-Leigh’s book is the total antidote to the tough, contemporary novels of today. The skill of the writer will always win out, and I am ready and eager for further publications in this vein, which leave me with such a welcome sense of satisfaction.
‘The Incredible Crime: A Cambridge Mystery’ is published by The British Library, £8.99