Students at Vaucluse College learn that Professor Dart is on the verge of making a discovery of a process to turn sugar into fuel. The next day he is found stabbed through the back with two bloody fingerprints on his collar and a puddle of water near him.
As the police are able to determine that no one entered or left the building after he was last seen alive, the killer must be one of those ten students. Searches of the students and the rooms reveal no weapons so who killed Professor Dart and how did they manage it?
An interesting setting and colorful characters but unfortunately one part of the solution is all too easily guessed.
I was introduced to the works of J. H. Wallis a few years ago when Kate at CrossExaminingCrime suggested I might be interested in one of his novels based on one of Todd Downing’s reviews collected in Clues and Corpses. I really enjoyed that book – The Servant of Death – and so slowly over the past couple of years I have worked to acquire affordable copies of each of his other novels. Finally this week I was able to track down the only one I was missing, completing my collection!
The Mystery of Vaucluse is part of Wallis’ Inspector Jacks series although readers should be aware that he is not the novel’s primary detective. Instead most of our time is spent following Devaney, a detective from New Haven, as he tries to make sense of this crime. While the series can be read in any order, I would suggest that this would be best enjoyed after reading some of Jacks’ earlier cases as I think that enhances a key moment late in the story.
This story is set at a college that has been set up as part of Yale University for adult students looking to spend time away from the world in academic pursuits. All students are required to be over forty years old and they are seeking personal enrichment or a chance to spend time with other prominent individuals rather than career qualifications.
One of the key figures at the college is Professor Dart, an internationally renowned scholar who has several significant academic projects on the go. During a dinner being held for the new intake of students, the Dean mentions two such projects that he considers tremendously exciting. One is a pesticide. The other, which he begins to describe, involves the refinement of sugar into a fuel that will replace oil.
Dart is uncomfortable talking about this and instead deflects their attention by talking about the history of the building they are in. We learn it is an exact copy of the Abbey Margawse on the Orkney Islands and was built from its original stones. Dart tells the story of a strange murder that took place six hundred years earlier in the room that is now his study in which a monk was found murdered with a stab wound in his back and a pool of water next to the body. The monks never learned which of their number did the crime or how it was committed.
After the speech Dart meets with the Dean in his study and shares his misgivings about his discovery. He wonders if it would be right to develop this process given that it will almost certainly cause enormous economic turmoil in the short term. The Dean presses him to ignore these misgivings and focus on the good it will do. He refuses however to learn where Dart is keeping the secret to the process – a fact known only to him – and leaves him in his study. As he departs though he has a sense of a figure lurking in the darkness. A short while later he is stabbed to death in the exact same location and way as the monk centuries earlier with the same mysterious pool of water near the body.
Quite by chance the police are summoned to the college at about the time the dean leaves as a student has reported a theft. Thanks to this coincidence, they are able to establish that no one had entered or left the building after the Dean which limits our suspects to just the ten individuals staying in the Abbey. Devaney, a detective from New Haven, is assigned the case and examines each room and person in turn but cannot find any sign of the murder weapon.
Devaney is shown to be a diligent detective, if not a hugely imaginative one. Throughout the case he takes actions that are designed to increase the pressure on those ten students, forcing them to spend time with each other and eat their meals in the room where the murder took place. Tempers inevitably flare between some members of the group, allowing Devaney and the reader a greater sense of each of their personalities.
This attention to characterization is one of the book’s strengths as Wallis clearly provides us with some biographical information about each of the ten students staying in the Abbey. He even produces a table at an early point in the novel summarizing their relationships, backgrounds, reasons for attending Vaucluse and the types of investments they hold.
Each character has some distinctive personality traits and in several cases we are aware of some mystery surrounding them. For instance, a married couple have accompanied their wealthy neighbor to the college but Devaney is unsure about the nature of their relationship and whether they are pests or welcome companions.
Some are more interesting and entertaining than others. Dentzer, a 112 year old who bores many in the party with his insistence on talking about centenarians at length, overstayed his welcome with me. The rest however each have their moments and were mysterious enough to leave me in some doubt about the killer until close to the end.
Let’s turn to focus more specifically on the plotting itself. Wallis’ invention of the historical crime is fun although it is perhaps not used to its full potential. I had expected some question about whether the room itself might kill but this is never really considered by Devaney. Still, it added to the atmosphere and it is used to unsettle the students before they even hear of Dart’s murder.
The decision to provide us with a pretty clear motivation for the murder is an interesting and fairly effective one. Dart’s discovery is so clearly the cause, the question is not why but whether it actually applies to the suspect and whether they had the means and opportunity.
One specific element of the crime will likely be quickly solved by most readers as it has been used frequently over the years. This is unfortunate but as that element of the mystery is not the primary focus, I think the experience isn’t spoiled if you immediately guess it.
Another however would be almost impossible to predict, particularly given that the circumstances of the murder seem to suggest it was a suddenly conceived plan. This unfortunately has the effect of making that part of the murder seem highly contrived (and it really, really is), but I think some observations can be inferred prior to the reveal that at least clue the reader in as to the nature of that element.
As to the killer’s identity – I think there are reasonable clues given that point to their identity. One piece of evidence is held back from the reader but I did not feel cheated – their identity can be reasonably inferred without that by the point you reach the challenge to the reader. I felt the reveal was strong and enjoyed the sequence in which they were caught.
Overall I found The Mystery of Vaucluse to be an interesting read and enjoyed the challenge of identifying the killer. It is not the author’s best work – I prefer his next book Murder Mansion or his early inverted mystery The Servant of Death – and one part of the solution feels well-worn, but the setting is interesting and Wallis’ stakeout sequences are tense and thrilling.