Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dermot Morrah, The Mummy Case Mystery

Dermot Morrah, The Mummy Case Mystery
Coachwhip Publications, 2016
(Reprint of ©1933 edition published by Harper)
ISBN 871-1-61646-250-5

At the end of term, on the night of the Commemoration Ball (think of it as your senior prom, on steroids), Professor Peter Benchley, an Egyptologist and Senior Fellow of Beaufort College (Oxford University) has apparently died in a fire in his rooms at the college.  Or at least someone has died.  Or maybe it’s just a mummy that has burned.  The evidence is unclear.  What is clear is that the extremely valuable mummy--the oldest extant mummy--of a Sixth Dynasty pharaoh (King Pepi) has either been burned or stolen.  Professor Benchley, who had recently purchased the mummy (and its case) from Professor Bonoff, a Russian Egyptologist, is at the very least missing.

The inquest, which is held in college and for which the Coroner’s Jury consists of the Fellows of the College, returns a verdict of accidental death, identifying the deceased as Benchley.  Two Junior Fellows, Denys Sargent (Law) and Humphrey Considine (Archeology), find themselves unconvinced by the evidence, and decide to investigate.  (Considine is Benchley’s executor, and Sargent acts, in that respect, as his legal advisor; the will has an odd codicil).  In the course of their investigation, they meet up with two (female) undergraduates from another College, who have some pertinent information, which leads to the recovery of the mummy case (but not the mummy itself).  They also try to trace Bonoff’s movements in England (including what appears to be a sighting of him in Beaufort College the night of the fire).

Morrah—an academic himself and a mathematics Fellow at New College in Oxford—never wrote another mystery—he was only 37 when this one was originally published, and that is probably too bad.  Based on what I know, he evokes the Oxford experience extremely well (if somewhat more lighted-heartedly than, for example, Dorothy Sayers did in Gaudy Night).  And Sargent and Considine are pleasant, intelligent investigators.  In particular, Considine's knowledge of the archeology of Egypt has its place in the investigation, but Sargent is the real sleuth.   The mystery itself is not the real reason for reading the book; it’s a decent plot, but I felt sure I knew the basic outline of the solution by about a third of the way into it (I was, as it happens, right—or I would not have mentioned it, would I?).  The one somewhat badly drawn character is an American millionaire, one Van Ditten, who badly wants to acquire the mummy for his collection, and expresses himself willing to pay up to a million dollars (about ₤200,000) for it.  Easily recommended as a light, pleasant summer read.

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