Darkness at Pemberley – T.H. White(1932)

Man, I did not know what I was getting into with this book.  Darkness at Pemberley made the footnotes section of Roland Lacourbe’s 2007 list of top locked room mysteries, having received at least four votes, but being disqualified for not having been translated into French. And so it’s natural that I went into it looking for a locked room mystery, right?  I ended up with something completely different.

The story starts off with what appears to be the setup for an impossible crime: a professor seemingly having committed suicide in his locked apartment after shooting a student in a nearby dormitory.  There’s enough incongruities at the crime scene that police suspect foul play, yet it doesn’t seem possible that anyone else was involved. We soon learn though that the locks on the doors of the building are of the ancient variety, and a key for one door could well open the lock for another.  That evaporates the whole locked room mystery angle, which is a bit of a pity because we get two maps of the crime scene.  More so, the solution to the murders involves some complex shenanigans worthy of an impossible crime, although more appropriate for the short story variety.

The thing is though, the crime is kind of a short story.  We find it completely wrapped up by page 72 of my 1978 Dover edition and there are 200 pages more to go.  Which isn’t entirely bad, because as mysteries go the setup was somewhat of an “eh, I’m going to have to read a whole novel about this?” ordeal.  But what happens in the remaining two thirds of the story?  Well, that’s kind of the fun of it.  If you want to go in completely unspoiled (err… I did kind of give one bit away already, didn’t I…) I’ll leave you here with the knowledge that this is a really enjoyable read, yet not a mystery in the conventional sense.  If you’re looking to crack the puzzle of who committed a murder and how they accomplished it, that ceases after page 70.  But of course, sometimes you really enjoy the things you didn’t set out to find.

Fine, where were we?  Inspector Buller has been investigating our not so impossible murder, and several chapters in, he’s seen through the alibi of one of the suspects, although he’s lacking in evidence.  Buller decides to confront the suspect in order to catch him off guard, but finds the shoe on the other foot.  The murderer confesses, explains how everything was accomplished, and then smugly teases Buller that he’ll never be able to prove anything.  Then the killer walks away.

It’s a frustrating experience for Buller, and he eventually quits the police force and shows up at the country house of an eccentric rich friend.  Over dinner he tells his friend the story of the crime and how his hands are tied.  To Buller’s shock, his friend immediately travels to the university, confronts the killer, and announces that he plans to murder him.  That last bit’s one of the highlights of the story, and it kickstarts the core of the plot.  Our villain decides to be proactive and go after his accuser, and he’s soon descended on the country house and out for blood.

We have two angles to play with: the killer is attempting to commit a murder for which he can’t be blamed, while Buller is forced to choose between playing defense or knocking off the killer without himself getting caught for a crime that he wouldn’t be able to justify.  If I was attempting to over sell you on this novel, I could position it as hero and villain, each trying to kill each other while establishing a perfect alibi, and using locked room chicanery in the process.  It doesn’t really play out solidly like that to be honest, although if some enterprising author wants to explore that plot, I’ll be the first to buy it (well, actually I’d eventually buy it, let it sit in a pile of books for two years, and then get to it at some point).

The weakness is that the killer morphs into some cartoonish super villain.  Within hours of the confrontation that kick started the drama, he’s tracked down his quarry, ensconced himself in the manor, and plotted an initial murder attempt in a completely unfamiliar setting.  He can slip in and out of rooms on a whim without being noticed, effortlessly evade traps, and seems to know every detail of the plans against him.  An awful lot of the plot hangs on the assumption that the villain has an unassailable alibi the entire time, but as the story goes on, I think you’ll find yourself scratching your head. Yeah, T.H. White provides an explanation for it all in the end, but you have to suspend your belief a bit and just roll with the fun.

It is incredible fun though.  It’s packed with suspense, of the type that I associate with decades later, and I kept having to sanity check that this was written in the early 30s.  I enjoyed the whole cat and mouse bit, and the story changed form enough to keep things interesting. Would I have sought out this book if I didn’t think it featured an impossible crime? Probably not. Did I enjoy it regardless? Yes.

T.H. White would go on to write much more famous works outside of the genre of mystery. Darkness at Pemberley stands as this strange little nugget: a book rescued from obscurity by Dover, not quite fitting in the Golden Age of Detection mold, but flirting around the outskirts. And that’s the fun of the genre isn’t it? You have that conventional core where you know what you’re getting, and then there are these interesting fringes.

5 thoughts on “Darkness at Pemberley – T.H. White(1932)”

  1. I had a similar response to this, though I think you like it a little more than me. Interestingly, it seemed to me to be written perhaps 15 years earlier than it was, where you think it’s a later work — perhaps on account of how incident-packed it is (if you cut all the maundering out of The Moonstone, I like to think you’d be left with a spitritual prequel to this).


  2. It felt like it was written later than it was? Or *earlier*? I agree with JJ. It seems to me that there were plenty of adventure and crime stories in the teens and 20s, and some were bound to come close to GAD. And even the earlier ‘genuine’ detective mysteries tended to include extraneous melodrama and side-plots in addition to the actual mystery.

    As for White himself, he was apparently floundering about with his writing early on, before he eventually stumbled onto the Arthurian legends. From Wikipedia:
    “White’s novel Earth Stopped (1934) and its sequel Gone to Ground (1935) are science fiction novels about a disaster that devastates the world. Gone to Ground contains several fantasy stories told by the survivors that were later reprinted in The Maharajah and Other Stories.”


    1. There was an element of Darkness at Pemberley that felt a bit like Philip MacDonald’s 1959 novel The List of Adrian Messenger. Which seems like a really weird comparison, but that’s what I was feeling.

      But yes, I do see what you and JJ are saying.


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