Kel Richards, author of a brilliant series of 1930's Murder Mysteries, explains the thinking behind his forthcoming The Sinister Student.
The 1930s is often called a ‘golden age’ of British crime writing. That’s when Agatha Christie had Miss Marple uncovering Murder at the Vicarage, and when she gave an ingenious twist to the question ‘which of these suspects is guilty’ in Murder on the Orient Express. It was also the decade in which Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey was at his most ingenious (while simultaneously wooing Miss Harriet Vane). And it was the decade in which John Dickson Carr was introducing us to Dr Gideon Fell and the dizzying world of locked room murders and impossible crimes. It was a golden age with a 24-carat gleam!
That is the age my series of 1930s murder mysteries is celebrating—hence, their ‘fair play’ clue-puzzle plots giving the reader all the clues available to the detective while still aiming to make the solution a genuine surprise (‘Why didn’t I spot that?’). Hence, too, the settings for the series—villages, market towns, country houses and so on. In the latest entry, The Sinister Student, the scene moves to Oxford in 1936.
The 1930s was also the ‘golden age’ of the amateur detective, and in The Sinister Student there is not just one amateur sleuth but a whole team of them—The Inklings, the informal literary club that met in the rooms of C. S. Lewis (known to his friends as Jack). In The Sinister Student it is Jack, his brother Warren (known as Warnie) and his best friend J. R. R. Tolkien (known as Tollers) who do the investigating.
Mind you, although Warnie loved murder mysteries (his collection can still be seen on the bookshelves at their old home The Kilns) Jack preferred science fiction (and in the 1930s began his trilogy of gripping science fiction novels: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength).
So, is it possible to blend a classic Agatha Christie style clue-puzzle murder mystery with Lewis’ beloved genre of science fiction? Well, (spoiler alert) in The Sinister Student those two genres come together to combine a time travel sub-plot with a grisly murder. And the murder is certainly grisly.
It unfolds like this: On a Thursday evening in 1936, The Inklings are meeting in Lewis’ rooms. As well as the regulars there are two visitors—Jack’s old pupil Tom Morris and an undergraduate named Aubrey Willesden. The following morning Willesden is discovered dead in his room. And although the room is locked from the inside—both the door and the windows are latched—the head is missing from his decapitated body. Who has killed this student? And why? And, more baffling still—how was it done?
This is a puzzle that will tax the brilliant ingenuity of Jack and his fellow Inklings to the limit.
(You many wonder where the time travel sub-plot, a missing first edition from the Bodleian and Tom Morris’ love life fits into all of this . . . read The Sinister Student to find out!)