Old Hall, New Hall by Michael Innes

Old Hall, New Hall cover

Old Hall, New Hall by Michael Innes was first published by Gollancz in 1956 but my copy is a 1964 Penguin Crime paperback.

I’m one of those readers who prefers my vintage crime reading to be of the sort where a crime takes place almost immediately. I was to be severely disappointed by that aspect of the book as the author spent an awful lot of time ‘vamping til ready’ – as I call it. Despite that I did enjoy reading this book, I just think that it was wrongly marketed. Michael Innes also wrote under the name J.I.M. Stewart and those books tend to be the ones that are set at a university, in his day job he was a professor of English literature at various universities, ending up at Oxford.

Colin Clout is a young unemployed academic, desperate for work. When he goes back to his old college his luck seems to have turned immediately as he meets Olivia a fabulous looking girl, and then his old professor offers him a chance of the Shufflebotham Fellowship (there are a lot of odd names in this book).

The university is quite a new one and the buildings had belonged to a local landowner originally and some of the previous generations of the Jory family had been rather strange. They now live nearby and it’s thought that there might be some treasure buried somewhere around Old Hall’s grounds. It turns out that the gorgeous Olivia is distantly related to the Jorys and she thinks that her branch of the family have been done out of the treasure – if indeed it exists.

One character is mentioned briefly twice – a deceased dotty Aunt Elizabeth who had apparently been under the impression that she was a barouche landau carriage! She spent her time attracting the attention of gentlemen she judged to be likely to be skilled with reins. What a scream, I so wish she had had a higher profile in this book.

I kept waiting for a crime to occur – as it’s a Penguin Crime paperback, but it never did.

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

An Academic Question

I read quite a few books by Barbara Pym way back in the 1970s but not this one. Barbara Pym died in 1980 and this book was published posthumously in 1986. She wrote to the poet Philip Larkin about the book in 1971 and was still tinkering with it in 1972 when she started writing her better known book Quartet in Autumn and An Academic Question was abandoned.

Generally her books were set in small villages and were about the lives of the inhabitants, sort of updated Jane Austen, vicars and all.

As you would expect from the title, An Academic Question is set in a university, not a lofty prestigious one but one of the then new ‘red brick’ universities founded in the late 60s and generally thought of as jumped up techs at the time. It’s the 70s so the students are revolting!

Caroline Grimstone is the wife of a young lecturer who is hoping that the research paper he is about to publish will make his name in the realms of ethnohistory. Caroline isn’t in love with her husband Alan but after seven years of marriage she is just getting on with it whilst worrying about being a good enough mother to her small daughter and how she can help further Alan’s career. Caroline is aware of how disappointed her own mother is by her choice of husband. You know what Larkin said ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad.

This is an interesting read although not as good as I remember Quartet in Autumn or Excellent Women to have been. There is some wit, I enjoyed the characters of Coco and Kitty especially as I knew a mother and son combination exactly like them, but the book has a very dated feeling for some reason. I’m certainly no stranger to older books and I was a young thing in the 70s and started working then but I had half forgotten how things were for women in the workplace then, very much second class!

The blurb on the back says ‘Will be read in decades hence for its good writing as much as for its offbeat sociological interest’ TIME OUT

And they were so right. I had completely forgotten about cigarette coupons and people collecting them, having to smoke thousands of fags to exchange the coupons in the packets for pyrex dishes and such, things that they could have bought for about the price of two packets of ciggies – crazy!

Anyway the setting was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, back to the 1970s of university and the library and it was a very quick read at just 182 pages.