The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

The Incredible Crime and its author are something of a literary curiosity, Lois Austen-Leigh was the great great grand niece of Jane Austen. She almost certainly wrote her books at the same desk her more famous ancestor used (now housed in the British Library), and that connection alone is probably enough to raise the interest of Austen fans generally. It was certainly enough to raise mine and make me particularly keen to read this one.

That Lois Austen-Leigh wrote four mystery novels, all of which were well received in their day, but have basically out of print since then only adds to the interest. Would this book stand up to scrutiny, or should it have been left in obscurity? 

Looked at purely as a mystery it’s not altogether surprising Lois Austen-Leigh fell of the radar so quickly, at least if this one is a representative example. It’s all quite convoluted, she seems to have lost interest in the mystery she starts with quite quickly, the one she takes up is never entirely explained (at least I might shed it if it was), and the attitude towards her heroine is slightly jarring in that she’s apparently far, far, too independent for her own good.

Looked at as more than a mystery however it has a lot to offer. Once I’d stopped worrying about the plot it was thoroughly entertaining, and as a period piece it’s fascinating. Her view of Cambridge and its academics is interesting too, and it’s a cracking novel about hunting.

Prudence Pinsent is the almost middle aged, very good looking, daughter of Bishop Pinsent, Master of Prince’s College, Cambridge. She’s well off, well connected, self assured, swears comprehensively and at length, and is, as already mentioned, fiercely independent. Something her friends don’t entirely approve of.

It’s sometime not later than 1931 (when the book was originally published) and Prudence is about to abandon the world of academic gossip and bridge parties to join her cousin, Lord Wellende, for the hunting season. On the way she meets an old friend, Captain Studde, who works for the coast guard. He tells her about a smuggling ring suspected of distributing a drug (X.Y.X.) through Cambridge, there might also be a connection with Wellende hall. Some rather senior figures from Scotland Yard and the secret service are taking an interest.

Prudence promises to do what she can to help but her loyalties are torn between the demands of honour, family, and Professor Temple – poison expert, cousin of Lord Wellende, and initially unlikely love interest. Nor is Prudence entirely above suspicion herself, the senior figure from Scotland Yard has his doubts. Meanwhile something is definitely going on at Wellende, but what, and has Prudence got utterly the wrong end of the stick on this one?

I think Lois Austen-Leigh is having to much fun playing with the forms of detective fiction, especially the country house mystery, to take it particularly seriously. The Cambridge bits are a little different, her uncle had been Provest of King’s college when it opened up to a world beyond Eton, it’s a world she had some knowledge of, and one she paints with a degree of affection. The Cambridge men make likely smugglers as well. It’s quite easy to believe that a combination of war time experience and honed intelligence would give them the moral flexibility and single minded determination to pursuing their own ends that would make a little matter like breaking the law seem inconsequential.

The passages (there are a few of them) about hunting are up there with Trollope for sheer enthusiasm (and length) and have an interest of their own. Her descriptions of the sporting country type are affectionate but also sharply humorous, and if her high Tory vision of benevolent aristocracy and grateful tenantry seem a little far fetched today it only makes it all the more interesting to read. 

As for Lois herself, we don’t really know much about her, but what we do know is intriguing. There’s a diary from her teens (1898 – 1906) full of enthusiasm for her brothers Cambridge friends, reports that this vicars daughter undertook parish visits on her motorbike, her own statement that she wrote to keep herself in champagne. It’s enough to wonder how closely she modelled Prudence on herself, whatever the truth of that may be, her confident, mature, and independently minded heroine is a delight. If this book is a curiosity, it’s one that more than repays investigation. 

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader

Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime (British Library Crime Classics 2017) 9780712356022. 239pp., Paperback.

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