Monday, November 14, 2016

Inklings Murder Mystery ("The Sinister Student", ) SPOILERS

So, I've now finished the fourth of Kel Richards' C. S. Lewis mysteries. This one I think reads better than the rest, simply so far as readability goes. But like the previous books in the series, it does have what was for me an absolute jump-the-shark moment. I think in general if you liked any of those previous books, you'll probably like this one too. And if you didn't like them, there's not much hope for this time round.

First, there's the murder mystery -- which need not be taken too seriously, given that the murder victim is revealed on the back cover of the book. Richards tends to favor wildly improbable methods of murder he pulls out of the hat; in this case the murder weapon and hence murderer are obvious from very early on.

Second, there's the P. G. Wodehouse sections. Whenever Richards' point-of-view character runs into the girl he's sweet on, they lapse into faux-Bertie Woosterisms (what ho, what ho). They even mention by name several times a Wodehouse character (Florence Cray, one of Bertie's onetime ill-matched fiancees). I'm a great admirer of Wodehouse myself, so I'm glad to see that Richards is too, but his imitation shows that it's harder than it looks. In short, Richards is not just not another P. G. Wodehouse: he's not even another P. H.  Cannon.

Two things that are very much to the good in this book, that makes it stand out and made it a more enjoyable read, for me at least, than its predecessors, is the Oxford setting and the inclusion of J. R. R. Tolkien as a character. I'm obviously a soft touch when it comes to books set in Oxford, and much more so when it comes to Tolkien. And for all this faults, Richards does produce a character named 'Tolkien' who actually plausibly resembles the real person of that name -- something many who have written JRRT into their stories as a character have utterly failed at. It's also nice to see a reconstructed Inklings meet (one Thursday night in Lewis's rooms, the other on a Tuesday at the Eagle & Child), with a plausible roster of Inklings in attendance: Lewis himself, Warnie,* Tolkien (who reads them his just-finished last chapter of THE HOBBIT), Nevill Coghill, Adam Fox, and latecomer Hugo Dyson. I'm sorry to see Dr. Havard doesn't make an appearance at either meeting, but then they were an informal group and it wasn't at all odd that one or another of them cdn't turn up at their gatherings, so I just told myself Humphrey was busy at the clinic that week. And while in his previous books Tolkien was just mentioned a time or two, he's a fairly major minor character this time around: after the point-of-view character (Young Morris) and CSL, I'd say Warnie and Tolkien probably show up the most often, often to comment on the ongoing events.

As for the jump-the-shark moment, for me this came when the rather odd visiting researcher who kept trying to meet Tolkien and Lewis, and seemed strangely informed about their works (including ones not-yet-published), turned out to be a time-traveller from the future who'd come back to Oxford 1936  in his tardis specifically to meet those two great writers. His tardis has a functioning chameleon circuit, so it takes the form of a wardrobe, thus giving Lewis the idea of travelling to another world by entering a wardrobe. And while it's clear the traveller isn't Doctor Who himself, he might as well be; he even uses a sonic screwdriver at one point to uncover a clue for Lewis et al. And if I'm reading Richards rightly, it's the time-traveller who's responsible for the famous bargain between Lewis and Tolkien: he certainly accidentally gives JRRT the idea of writing a story about Atlantis.

So, not a turn of events that I saw coming, and not one that I thought improved his book. If it had worked for me, I suppose I'd be calling it jump-the-genre instead of jump-the-shark. I suppose I shd give him points for originality, but is it originality to be the first person to have a really bad idea?

--John R.

*in one rather nice touch, Richards admits in an endnote that he calls Warnie 'the Major', even though he now knows Warnie was still Captain Lewis at the time, simply because it sounds right: Warnie is widely known as 'the Major' among fans of the Inklings.

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