Death and His Brother Sleep

"I'm afraid you'll think I haven't exactly been minding my own business. Why should I, anyhow? Two months in this place ought to reveal all our secrets, if we have any. Mind you, it was a sheer accident in the way it happened..."
- Captain Charles Mallinson (James Hilton's Lost Horizon, 1933) 
There are several well-known documented cases of hobby deformation among mystery readers, which include associating the literary father of Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne, with The Red House Mystery (1922) and Gaston Leroux with Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) instead of La fantôme de l’opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1910).

Well, was it murder?
Similar examples dot the landscape of the genre, but there's one writer I'll never be able to associate solely with his one-off contribution to the detective-and thriller genre.

James Hilton was an English novelist best known today for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934) and a wonderful adventure-fantasy novel, Lost Horizon (1933), which I read during a short period when I was reading "Lost World" stories. There were, however, only a small amount of such books available at the time. So it was only a brief excursion outside of the detective story, but it did put Hilton's sole mystery novel on my radar.

Was it Murder? (1931) originally appeared as Murder at School, under the byline of "Glen Trevor," which remained an obscure fact for decades after success came knocking on Hilton's door and one presumes the book was filed away as a youthful indiscretion – until Dover Publications brought it back in circulation in the late 1970s.

I enthusiastically bought a copy years ago, but continuously put off reading it after perusing some decidedly mixed reviews of the book. Well, the book left me with some mixed feelings now that I have read it myself. Lets begin at the beginning...

The backdrop of the book is a minor, unassuming public school, named Oakington, where a student by the name of Robert Marshall fell victim of a peculiar accident when a heavy, old-fashioned gas fitting crushed his skull in the dormitory during the night. Dr. Robert Roseveare, current Head of Oakington, would've let the dead rest in peace were it not for a strange note he found inside the boy's algebra-book, telling that "if anything should happen to me, I leave everything to my brother Wilbraham" – which aren't the kind of thoughts you'd expect to be on the mind of a public school boy.

Dr. Roseveare calls in the help of an old student, Colin Revell, who once solved "a little affair at Oxford" when "a rather valuable manuscript had disappeared from the College libraby" and had solved the case "by means of a little amateur detective-work." The first impressions of Revell begs for comparisons with Roger Sheringham and Philip Trent, but there's a difference between the fallibility of the later two and the incompetence of the former.

A Mysterious Story of a Different Kind
Oh, there's enough to enjoy about Revell's handling of the case for the plot-driven reader. There are plenty of possible explanations bandied about and leads to follow up on around the school grounds, but Revell never appears to be fully on the mark and eventually has to leave without having cleared up the first death – not to the readers satisfaction anyway. I mean, why were the students who were sleeping right next to Marshall never considered to be suspects or even questioned as potential witnesses? That's just sloppy.

There are several months between Revell's first and second visit to Oakington, which occurs when learning about the supposedly accidental death of Wilbraham Marshall in the empty swimming baths of the school. It smacks of murder and has attracted the attention of an actual detective from Scotland Yard, Guthrie, but he only gives off the impression of being more competent than Revell and eventually leaves empty handed after a third fatality – which is annoying because I had correctly figured out the correct solution at this point.

And they were still roughly a 150-pages removed from stumbling across the solution themselves, but Hilton's pleasant, often light-hearted style has to be commended here as it sustained my interest in the story. The "surprise" revelation fell somewhat flat, but the effort was appreciated.

I also found it interesting that, in spite of the witty writing, there's somber shadow cast over the story by the Great War and its lingering affect it had on some of the characters. I've always been interested in detective stories that are tied to the World Wars of the 20th century, but I don't remember having ever read one in which the ghost of World War I was almost background character in itself. A very interesting aspect of the book.

Anyway, Was it Murder? is a prime-example of the amateur detective and mystery novel, but whether that's a good or bad thing is up to the individual reader. I'm still very divided on that question, but I do want to re-read Lost Horizon now, because that's a prime-example of an excellent potboiler!


  1. Interesting review of a flawed but under-rated book. I appreciated this book more the second time I read it than the first. Hilton's irony made more of an impression on me the second time around.

    1. The book has some good and interesting parts that should be appreciated, but the detectives can be really slow, bordering on incompetent, and the murderer became very obvious after a while.

      I'll probably re-read Lost Horizon long before I pick this one up for a second try.

  2. The lingering effects of World War I on characters is a major theme with Henry Wade, who was also a participant. He also had the ability of a mainstream novelist in addition to being a first-rate detective story writer. See especially Mist on the Saltings and The High Sheriff for the World War I theme. For a modern series that does the same thing, see Charles Todd's series with Inspector Rutledge.
    As far as James Hilton goes, if you have not read Random Harvest, I give it my highest recommendation.

    1. Henry Wade has been recommended many times to me and Heir Presumptive was a pretty solid read, but the only one I have close at hand at the moment is A Dying Fall.

      However, I'll have to check the titles you mentioned, because, as I said, I find detective stories tied to the World Wars even more fascinating than just regular old mysteries.

  3. I think I had the same reaction as you TC - interesting and enjoyable and yet slightly underwhelming. If you can, might be worth getting a copy of Hilton's RANDOM HARVEST which is a fairly comolimentary novel and pulls a fairly amazing surprise late in the narrative

    1. Well, that's a second recommendation for Random Harvest, but it's not a detective story, is it? Though I see it's tied to the WWI. I'll put up on the list and thanks for the recommendation.