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Book Review : Leisurely Stroll Into a Mystery

January 20, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

Academic Murder by Dorsey Fiske (St. Martin's: $15.95)

Though a basic knowledge of heraldry, a solid foundation in Elizabethan poetry and a dash of Norman blood will add immeasurably to the enjoyment of "Academic Murder," a First in Greats from Cambridge would be best of all. Thus prepared, no nuance of this clever but precious mystery would escape you.

By an extraordinary coincidence of timing, the plot turns on the discovery of a hitherto unknown Shakespearean poem found in a volume of 17th-Century sermons buried in the library of a fictional Cambridge college. As the author gently reminds us, "the compilers of early poetic anthologies had an insouciant habit of affixing a known name to any anonymous scrap that came their way"; the odds-on favorite being Shakespeare.

This particular treasure was turned up by Ernest Garmoyle, a fellow of Sheepshanks College, previously known less for his research than for his drunkenness. As the story begins, Garmoyle has drained the port decanter at a ceremonial dinner honoring Lord Cavasson, the nominal owner of the book in which the verse has been found. When Garmoyle collapses and dies after gulping a huge swig from a fresh bottle, consternation, tempered by relief and covert glee, reigns among the assembled fellows. The irascible intemperate Garmoyle, after all, was not precisely the sort of chap to deserve the distinction of so earth-shaking a find. The master of Sheepshanks would naturally prefer a gentleman in that conspicuous role, and at first the removal of Garmoyle seems fortuitous.

Sheepshanks, with its bizarre Oriental design and reputation for high living and low scholarship, has always suffered from a poor public image that would hardly have been enhanced by the sudden prominence of its least prepossessing don. The surviving fellows are therefore easily consolable until another of their group meets an untimely end. The innocuous Dr. Mutton is the next to go, but when an attempt is made upon the life of the lovable Fenchurch, matters seem to have gone too far. Fenchurch, who had hitherto concerned himself entirely with medieval architecture, feels obliged to participate in the ensuing investigation, in the course of which he imparts a considerable amount of lore in his speciality.

As the character of each don is explored in turn, the action slows to accommodate lessons in their various disciplines. The plot is further complicated by the depredations of a rapist disguised in a master's gown, a stocking mask and women's fancy bedroom slippers, all items easily obtainable by anyone on campus.

Much of the humor in this first novel depends upon the mysterious workings of the British class system, a theme more fraught with hilarity for them than for us. To point up the tensions between people of varying backgrounds, Fiske archly gives everyone a name indicating his place in the social hierarchy. Grubb, for example, is a former scholarship student with left-wing leanings, still "a charity boy" in the opinion of his intolerant colleagues despite his professional achievements. The local police inspector, a stolid salt-of-the-earth type, is called Bunce, while the elderly porter in charge of Sheepshanks' wine cellar is named Bottom. The deceased Dr. Mutton resembles a sheep; the portly, bumbling master of the college is known as Shebbeare; the mercurial scientist Tempeste is always outraged, and so on, in the manner of Restoration comedy.

Despite an excessively supercilious tone and sentences long as the War of the Roses, "Academic Murder" can be diverting for aficionados of literate British mysteries, since it is clearly and deliberately designed to be the quintessence of its genre, respectfully mocking the style it so faithfully follows. The solution is reasonably appropriate, the assorted Cambridge types are amusingly exaggerated, and the knowledgeable excursions into history, literature and architecture sufficiently edifying to compensate for a pace leisurely as an amateur cricket match.

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