#136: Darkness at Pemberley (1932) by T.H. White

Darkness at Pemberley GollanczI’d like to get a fundamental contention out of the way: T.H. White’s sole detective novel Darkness at Pemberley came to my attention for the locked room murder that opens it, but I don’t feel it qualifies an impossible crime (the room can be unlocked at will, for one…).  Had White made a couple of different narrative choices — not even in the scheme itself, purely in the structure of how he presents the problem — then it could be an ‘impossible alibi’ problem.  But he doesn’t.  You’re told the guilty party before they’ve had a chance to really fall under suspicion or even mention the alibi they’ve given themself, and so you have a well-that-would-have-been-impossible-if-they’d-been-given-a-chance-to-deny-it crime.  Which I’m pretty sure is a new sub-sub-genre, though perhaps not one that we’ll get many further books in…

Anyhoo.  Two dead bodies are found in separate buildings directly opposite each other: one a boarding house, the other a Cambridge college.  After very little in the way of investigation or suspects, Inspector Buller — by turns peremptorily perceptive and dangerously dense — confronts the person he considers guilty, accuses them, admits that he has no evidence to prove their guilt and they confess and lay the entire scheme out for him.  Then (and this is the bit that really defies belief) they tell him they’ve killed someone else and, without stopping to arrest them or arrange a constable to watch them, Buller races off to confirm this…and then that bit of the plot ends.

It sounds stupid because it is stupid, but it’s not like White isn’t trying as at times it is quite wonderfully written:

“It’s extraordinary how remote human beings are from on another.  We go here and there like cats, meeting, fraternising, diverging.  Sometimes we have alibis and sometimes not, but always, inside, everybody is incalculable and secret, always locked up an impenetrably alone.  The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”

“You ought to have been a poet,” said the doctor.

“Not nowadays,” replied the Inspector, and shook his head.

It starts out as a neat little problem embellished by superbly intelligent touches of  insight and deduction (the manner in which they ascertain the order of the murders is completely brilliant, even if the precise situation of the second murder is unlikely in the extreme) which is doing slightly more than just trotting out the tropes and making a half-decent job of it — much to my delight we even get three maps:

But, well, White clearly doesn’t want to write that kind of book, so we get the above-mentioned accusation and confession, the maps of no value at all (out Greek Coffining previous disappointment king The Greek Coffin Mystery) and then we move on.

The remaining two-thirds of the book is effectively three set-pieces, of which the first and third are very good — if reading like something from a sensationalist adventure novel published about 15 years earlier — and actually reveal our antagonist to be rather neglected in the realisation of their cruelty and ingenuity.  It’s a shame the structure of this requires them to suddenly becomes a mixture of Fu Manchu, Dracula, and Hannibal Lecter, because if White had spent a little more time establishing them as a person it would be felt all the more powerfully.

Darkness at Pemberley OstaraBut then characterisation doesn’t appear to be much on White’s mind.  One quick WW1 flashback/dream aside, Buller can be typified by the fact that all his blood rushes to the smaller of his heads at the mere mention of The Lady of the Piece, and when she isn’t insisting on putting herself in the way of danger (much to Buller’s unalloyed delight, the selfish prig) she’s just sort of there for him to become awkward around.  There are also some servants.  And a kind of man-of-all-trades.  It cements this as a kind of Victorian undertaking (no-one actually says “the bounder!”, but it wouldn’t be at all out of place) superimposed on a sort of pre-emptive 1970s toughness.  The fact that none of these people ever cropped up in a novel again won’t be felt too great a shame, though the villain would have made a superb sub-Moriarty if someone else had utilised him against their own Sherlock derivative.

The superb sense of atmosphere engendered within Pemberley is quite something — considering how compact the footprint of the action is, White strings it out to feel like a country-wide manhunt at times.  If published in 1917 this would achieve more than curiosity value as a rarefied example that could legitimately be laid down as a key step in the evolution of the crime novel.  Alas, White is late to the party, so this is more a curio for the insatiable than some necessary sustenance for connoisseurs.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

This is available from Ostara Publishing in their Cambridge Crime series, the cover of which is the second cover shown above; I submit the cover of my Gollancz edition at the top for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Bloodstains.

See also:

Tipping My Fedora: This is in fact a book so full of ideas, wit and invention that at times it does feel a bit like several books compressed into one.

Kate Macdonald: Our frustration from the characters having to rely on leaving messages for each other from public telephones is something that readers have only experienced in the last 15 years: before that, public telephones were the only way for amateur detectives to stay in touch with a manhunt, and we took them for granted. So much necessary tension has been lost from modern detective fiction by the mobile phone.

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20 thoughts on “#136: Darkness at Pemberley (1932) by T.H. White

    • Same here. I read this one some years ago and the details have blurred a bit, but I do remember enjoying the book. I dimly recall liking the second part of the story better than the first one. But, yes, not an undisputed and genre-defining classic.

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      • For the bits of the second part confined to the house, it’s a very good, tough, thrillerish read; the car chase, while doubtless exciting at the time, has unfortunately dated horribly!

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    • It’s not a complete loss, and given another two books I think he might have nailed this form of story, but clearly not where his heart lay. Given the abominations I’ve read in the genre (couchGaldysMitchellcough) he’s hardly disgraced himself 🙂

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    • Maybe there are subtleties lost to my cro-magnon mind, but there seems to be no Austen link at all (aside from a lady with a fluttering bosom who always gets overheated around a moody man, that is). Definitely an odd choice of name, as it’s not even some updating of the concepts involved in P&P.

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  1. Well, it sounds absolutely awful, but you have a gentle way with snark that made it absolutely worth the read. (Erm, you reading it, not me.) I look forward to your review of the Berkeley. And thanks for re-tweeting my piece. I don’t seem to be capable of setting up a Twitter account. So frustrating . . .

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  2. After resigning from Police, Buller goes to meet his friend Charles Darcy who lives in Pemberley mansion with his sister Elizabeth.
    It is mentioned in the book while referring to Elizabeth that “the Christian name had been in the family since the famous Elizabeth in 1813”.
    Thus it is clear that Charles and Elizabeth Darcy are descendants of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Charles Darcy is the present Baronet.

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  3. I agree with Santosh – I got the impression that the characters were descendants of the main characters of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. As such I got confused with Elizabeth being Darcy’s sister (!!) until the link with Austen’s novel became clear.

    I think I might have mentioned that I had strong feelings for this one… I think I liked the first third better than the rest of the novel – and when it all came together it felt as if it tried to do more than it actually accomplished.

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    • Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to your next review, as it’s meant to be one of Anthony Berkeley’s best novels, after ‘Poisoned Chocolates’ and ‘Jumping Jenny’ – but it has received mixed reviews. I failed to purchase it prior to Langtail Press removing it from the Kindle store. 😦

      Incidentally, I’ve just finished (in a matter of minutes) the novel you wish to erase from Berkeley’s oeuvre: ‘Not to be Taken’.

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      • Yeah, Langtail just kinda up and disapeared, didn’t they? Here’s hoping we all get a chance to hoover up Murder Room titles before they do the same!

        How did you like NtbT?

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        • Talking about hoovering up Murder Room titles… I’ve just purchased a handful of Conningtons, one Cullingford and one Wade. Which make my metaphorical TBR pile in my Kindle even higher. 😀

          I think I felt more sympathetic towards ‘Not to be Taken’ than you did. After ‘Poisoned Chocolate Case’, which I liked very much, I read ‘Murder at the Basement’ and ‘Murder at Piccadilly’ – and neither struck me to have a particularly strong puzzle. I would say ‘Not to be Taken’ has a better mystery than both novels, but is a less entertaining read? None of the three, however, quite reach the heights of ‘Poisoned Chocolates Case’. I still have ‘Jumping Jenny’ on my shelf, so I hope I’ve saved the best for the last!

          P.S. I’m starting to see a pattern in my differing responses to your and Kate’s reviews. Kate often reviews the books I’m currently thinking about, and are available for me to purchase. Your reviews often cast favourable light on books I once considered purchasing, but have slipped through my fingers (‘Death in Five Boxes’, ‘Second Shot’, etc.). 😛

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        • Ha, maybe I should let you know my future intentions so you have time to buy the books before they disappear. Only problem there is that I often don’t know what I’ll be writing about next myself most of the time…

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  4. Pingback: #148: So, Like, What Is an Impossible Crime or a Locked Room Mystery? | The Invisible Event

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