Kenneth Hopkins pretty much seems to be a forgotten author, which is a shame, really, as his comic mystery novels featuring the elderly amateur sleuths Dr. William Blow, 81, and Professor Gideon Manciple, 79, are quite witty, fun and nicely-plotted things.
The opening of She Died Because... is delightful, as the absent-minded, quotation-loving bachelor Dr. Blow - "his mind...still mainly occupied with the problems of editing the text of the whole works of Samuel Butler, a task upon which he had now been engaged for some fifteen years" - comes to the gradual realization that he's hungry. It's 3 a.m. and he hasn't had his tea, so he goes in search of his housekeeper (whom he calls Mrs. Solihull, even though that's not her real name...Dr. Blow just finds it easier to call all his housekeepers - he's had many over the years - Mrs. Sollihull).
After some hesitant poking around, Blow arrives at the door to Mrs. Sollihull's room, and after calling her name several times, tentatively opens the door:
Dr. Blow didn't care, yet, to venture in. A man might in emergency open his housekeeper's door. But it was hardly his business to enter, especially if she were not there. At least, she made no answer.
It isn't until Blow rouses his good friend and neighbor, Prof. Manciple, to come have a look that the pair discover that Mrs. Sollihull is in actual fact dead, her mouth open and a knife sticking out of her back.
The pair do what all respectable British gentlemen would do at such a time - they make themselves some tea, then telephone for the police. But when Inspector Urry arrives on the scene, the murder weapon is no longer there.
Soon the elderly duo are nosing around the case, led by the vastly more worldly and capable Manciple. Before they know it, they're up to their necks in a "domestic service" theft ring, prostitution, illicit night clubs, and other criminal enterprises.
While the mystery itself is well-enough plotted, what exactly lies behind the death of Mrs. Sollihull, a.k.a. "Flash Elsie," proves less interesting than following the very engaging antics of the bumbling pair of over-age sleuths. Hopkins was obviously an erudite man in real life, for he captures the dry, tweedy donnishness of the scholar's lifestyle and habits quite well. The novel is full of the sort of wry wit that I find irresistible. I was reminded of that wonderful British series Charters & Caldicott that ran on PBS' Mystery! series back in the mid 80s, which also featured a pair of elderly, bickering sleuths, this time cricket fanatics rather than scholars, who perhaps cause more havoc than help in the official murder inquiries.
She Died Because... was originally published in 1957. I have the paperback reprint from Perennial Library, first published in 1984, as well as another Blow and Manciple novel, Body Blow (1962), from the same publisher. There's also at least one other caper featuring the pair published in paperback from Perennial, Dead Against My Principles (1960). Hopkins wrote a handful of other mysteries, including a spy novel, Amateur Agent (1955), published under the pseudonym "Christopher Adams." Not a lot seems to be known about Hopkins, but some excellent info can be found here at the interesting blog, Existential Ennui. Judging from this novel, at least, Hopkins deserves to be better known. In Dr. Blow and Prof. Manciple, he created a worthy pair of amateur detectives, and I look forward to catching up with more of their misadventures in the future.
My rating: A-
Welcome to the Armchair...
Look out the window. It’s a dark, cold, rainy day. Too nasty to go outside.
Better stay inside, read a good book.
There’s a bookcase over to your left. Run your fingers over the spines. Books of all shapes, sizes and genres; hardbacks, paperbacks. Take your time browsing through the titles. No rush. Find something that feels just right.
Now turn around. Over in the corner is a beat-up, black leather armchair. The leather is faded and cracked in places, the cushions battered. This chair has seen better days. But boy, does it look inviting...
Next to the chair is a standing lamp and a small table. Plenty of room for a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, whatever’s your poison.
So switch on the light, settle down with your book, open to page one, put your feet up, and let the author whisk you away to another world.
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