Reading the Collections, Week 22: Agatha Christie’s favourite detective novel
When looking for material to read for this blog series, I decided to look at the modern fiction within the St Andrews Collection. This includes books written by authors who have a connection to the University or the town. Being a keen reader of crime fiction, I was pleased to find a series of detective novels by D M, or Dominic, Devine.
David McDonald Devine joined the University of St Andrews in 1946 as Assistant Secretary, became Depute Secretary in 1961 and Secretary and Registrar of the University from 1972 until his death in August 1980.
Checking online, I found that he wrote thirteen books and that his first novel My Brother’s Killer was reputed to have been Agatha Christie’s favourite detective novel. This seemed to be a good place to start. Devine’s books were originally published by Collins Crime Club in Britain and a selection of these have been re-issued in the Crime Classics series. Fortunately, My Brother’s Killer is one of these.
Oliver Barnett is found murdered in his office. Simon, his brother and partner in the small law practice, begins to investigate the murder. Simon knows he is a suspect and does not believe the evidence that emerges of his brother as a callous blackmailer. With the help of the other employees of the law firm, Simon delves into his brother’s past and current dealings. This is a well written book which has a complex plot, many red herrings and a neat twist at the end. The police are not caricatured as plodding and stupid. The investigating officers turn out to have worked out as much as Simon and his team and are, in fact, ahead of them in solving the crime.
I decided that I ought to read another Devine book to compare and chose The Sleeping Tiger, largely because Topping and Co. had a copy in stock. (Other bookshops are available) This book begins with one John Prescott (for whom the book’s title is a nickname) on trial for murder. As the trial progresses, he thinks back over the events which led up to it, aware that someone giving evidence must be the actual murderer. The plot revolves around a series of blackmail letters and the twist used in My Brother’s Killer appears here again but in a more minor role. Against the odds, Prescott is found “not guilty” and after a race across France to find the original blackmail letter, the murderer is revealed.
I realised that a friend of mine must have worked with Devine so I contacted her to ask her about that time. She remembered him as a pleasant and fair person to work for but, as the workplace was much more formal in those days, she did not know him well. It was known in the office that he wrote the detective novels and my friend remarked that they knew there was one about the University. Intrigued, I felt I had to find this one but, as our copies do not have retain their dust-jackets, I had to scan the texts. The book I found had the rather lurid title, Death is my Bridegroom. This story is set in a provincial university, not far from the coast, which has a Classics Department, a Biology Department and a Medical Faculty. The murder victim is a student, “drifting precariously towards a degree in Biology.” Her father is a rich benefactor of the University which is hoping for even more generosity in the future. The plot revolves around student unrest, thwarted academic ambition and involves subverting the UCCA admissions process. The perpetrator of the crime becomes evident quite early on in the story but I kept rejecting the obvious solution as I was looking for the twist that was in the other two novels. The university appears to be in the English midlands, about four hours’ drive from Glasgow in 1969. Is this a book about a disguised St Andrews? I am not sure. Perhaps someone who knew the University in the 1960s would be able to tell.
David Devine wrote six novels as D M Devine and seven as Dominic Devine. The books date from the 1960s and 70s and are of their time. Men are professionals and women are wives or secretaries, occasionally both. This is also before forensic science ruined many an inventive plot. The plots do hold together, however, and although aficionados of modern crime fiction will notice glaring errors in current accepted practice, the books are still worth reading. The Detective Fiction website states that David Devine is “a hugely underrated author who deserves a far wider audience.” I can only agree.
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