Friday 19 August 2016

The Mummy Case (1933) - Dermot Morrah

Dermot Michael Macgregor Morrah was one of those academics who wrote a detective novel just for fun. Born in 1896, Morrah earned a scholarship in Math at the New College of Oxford in 1914. After participating in the First World War, he changed his path and started dedicating to Modern History. In 1921 he became Prize Fellow of All Souls College and undertook an academic career. Shortly after though, he got married and had to interrupt his researches. From 1928 onwards, Morrah wrote leaders for the Daily Mail and The Times, as well as books about royalty and speeches for members of the Royal Family, including the Queen. As we may guess from the biography, Morrah was a very talented and eclectic man. Unfortunately, he wrote only one detective novel, The Mummy Case (1933), which I found very entertaining and amongst the best academic detective novels  I have ever read. 

As someone may expect, the story is set in Oxford, mainly in the fictitious Beaufort College. At the heart of the tale, there is the academic rivalry between two eminent Egyptologists, Peter Benchley and Feodor Bonoff. One night, a dreadful fire occurs in the rooms of Professor Benchley, who has recently purchased from Bonoff an highly valuable mummy. The fire completely destroys his room and only one body is found inside, which is impossible to identify, along with a wristwatch and a set of keys. The University rapidly calls it an accident, and Benchley is named as the charred corpse. Two professors though, Considine and Sargent, are skeptical about this explanation, and start to investigate on their own. If the body is Benchley’s, after all, where is the mummy? 

The Mummy Case is one of those novels clearly belonging to the Golden Age of detective fiction: the tone is lighthearted, the emphasis is always on the intellectual activities of the two sleuths, there is a lot of British humor and a group of well-depicted characters. Morrah reveals a pleasant wit and humor in his dialogues, but he is also capable of coming up with an intriguing plot. The story is filled with clever clues and some good red herrings, and the final explanation is very good as well. The main twist is allegedly guessable, but the (academic) motive of the culprit is wonderfully intellectual and ingenious. 
Unfortunately, the narrative rhythm is not always driving: some passages, especially when the two sleuths talk about the case, are too long and wordy (with the exception of chapter 4, where Sargent applies his professional skills to analyze the case, and chapter 9, which is a good example of recapitulation). In the second part, the book starts to flag, but the final two chapters are so amusing that you have to forgive the author.
As Mike Grost points out, we may find traces of the Realistic School writers, including Richard Austin Freeman (whose The Eye of Osiris (1911) involves mummies and Egyptology). The solution of the story involves the 'breakdown of identity', although not for the purpose of alibi construction.
Ultimately, this is one of my favorite academic detective novels, along with Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937). Morrah is much more able than Boucher to convey the atmosphere of a College, with its customs and traditions, its rules and conventions.

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