Thursday, January 12, 2012

FFB: The Mummy Case Mystery - Dermot Morrah

There are few university set mysteries that are as deeply immersed in academia as the sole detective novel by Dermot Morrah. With few exceptions the entire cast is made up of college professors or university officials and their world is confined to the ivy covered halls of Beaufort College, Oxford. At the heart of the story is an academic rivalry centered on the minutiae of highly specialized Egyptology research. When a dreadful accident occurs and one of their own turns up dead all that matters is that the university not suffer scandal.

A fire occurs in the rooms of Peter Benchley, professor of Egyptology, where a newly purchased mummy was being temporarily stored.  The fire completely destroys his room and only one body is found inside, charred beyond recognition. The only items that can be found to identify the body are a wristwatch and a set of keys.  Denys Sargent, law professor, is not satisfied with the university's quick decision to settle the matter by calling it an accident and voting that Benchley be formally named as the charred corpse.  He wonders if the body is Benchley's, then what happened to the mummy?  And if the body is really the mummy, then where did Benchley go?  And could Benchley's rival, the Russian Egyptologist Feodor Bonoff, have something to do with the fire that is all too suspicious?  Sargent and his pal Humphrey Considine, ancient Assyria professor, set out to discover the answers to these riddles and more.

Even though the book sounds violent and gruesome from my plot summary the tone is lighthearted, the writing sharp, the humor acerbic, and the emphasis always on the cerebral not the criminal.  Over analysis may be the book's one fault. In Chapter 9 entitled "The Examiners" Sargent and Considine review sixteen separate points about the fire and the mysterious circumstances of the body, the mummy and what actually happened to Benchley. They outline all the possibilities and parameters in such detail it is easy to see through the culprit's deception. Yet even if the reader figures out the true identity of the charred body there are still a few delightful surprises in the amusing final chapters.

Of the many academic mysteries out there this is one of the best from the Golden Age.  Satiric, clever, with a very dry British humor - they don't seem to write them like this anymore. And I doubt you will find a better book that mixes crime and universities where the motives of the culprit are so thoroughly intellectual that only a professor could dream up such a scheme.

Luckily, this is one of the rare instances where you can buy a cheap copy of the book.  The Mummy Case Mystery was reissued in a paperback edition by Harper's Perennial Library in 1988 and a handful of copies are available from multiple online dealers.

6 comments:

  1. John, you're on a roll with these blog entries on forgotten and neglected writers and their detective stories!

    I have read of this one before, but never stumbled across a copy and it's not that high up on my wish list, even after this enticing review, to place a special order for it. But I will snatch it up if it comes within reach of my covetous claws.

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  2. I read this years ago but still remember it fondly, TomCat. I flipped through some chapters last night to refresh my memory about some of the details and then re-read the entire last two chapters. Really great stuff. I still find that Sargent is one of the best and wittiest professor characters in detective fiction of this era. I imagine him being played by a younger Stephen Fry -- the quintessential persona of British dry humor. It's one of the few books where I agree with Barzun's assessment in his Catalog of Crime. I think he loves it a lot because the author was also an academic and the book is really a celebration of the lives of cloistered professors who live by the "Publish or Perish" motto to the exclusion of everything else. Barzun included Morrah's book in his reprint series "Top 50 Classics of Crime." Copies of those used to be cheap in the used book trade, but not much anymore. That's why I say go for the Harper paperback in the post. I have one I'm selling next week, BTW. Dirt cheap, too!

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  3. Great review, John. This one sounds just the ticket for me. Egyptology. Acerbic professors. Oxford. Murder.

    What's not to like?

    This goes on my definite TBR list.

    John, you are not good for my pocket book. :)

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  4. Finally! A forgotten book that you've featured that I have! Not in a cool vintage edition like the covers you've posted--unfortunately--but the more recent reprint. Haven't read it yet--it's in the teetering Mount TBR mountain range. I picked it up precisely because of the academic connection. You know what a sucker I am for those.

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  5. Not to be confused with the Hardy Boys book, The Mummy Case.

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  6. John, I bought this shortly after reading your review and I just read it (finally). This is one of the very few mysteries in which I guessed the ending correctly; however, it is such an entertaining book that it didn't matter. Thanks for the recommendation!

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