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Taking place in that most traditional and confounding of English settings, the public school. Colin Revell, impudent Oxonian and sometime sleuth, returns to his alma mater Oakington to puzzle over a schoolboy’s “accidental” death. The accidents multiply in frequency and horror as Colin idly pokes about the Gothic quads, and the tightly modulated suspense ripens with a generous foretaste of Hilton’s later acclaimed talent: finely perceived, individual characters, overwhelming atmosphere, and full complement of adventure and romance.
280 pages, with a reading time of ~4.25 hours (70,092 words), and first published in 1931. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2015.
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So, after patient effort, composed Colin Revell in his Islington lodgings on a murky December morning. You will have rightly deduced that he was young, rather clever, and not hard up enough to have to do any real work. He was, in fact, just as old as the century; had had one of those “brilliant” careers at Oxford that are the despair alike of parents and prospective employers; and enjoyed a private income of a little over four pounds a week. Added to which, he was an only child; his parents were both dead; and his relatives were the usual collection of retired colonels and tea-planters who, from their fastnesses at Cheltenham, eyed him with as little relish as he did them.
His unassuming ground-floor front looked on to a somewhat decayed street within walking distance of the Caledonian Cattle Market. The hour was a trifle short of noon, and the remains of a recent breakfast lay pushed somewhat away from him on the table. His purple dressing-gown and black silk pyjamas contrasted oddly with the landlady’s furnishings, which, in an ecstasy of admiration for their Victorian antiquity, he had allowed to remain exactly as when he had first entered into occupation. It was a pose, undoubtedly, but an amusing one. The landlady, a Mrs. Hewston, thought her lodger rather “queer”, but as he paid her well and regularly and did not appear to mind her stealing his gin, she was glad enough to keep him.
Gin, indeed, was the sedative with which, having composed his stanza, Revell restored a somewhat fatigued mind. His friends were all aware that, besides writing occasional literary articles for a high-brow weekly, he was “at work” on a full-length satirical epic in the manner and metre of Don Juan. He had begun it during his final year at Oxford, and by the date at which this story opens it had grown to lack only two things–continuity and a publisher.
A clock somewhere in the neighbourhood began the chiming of noon. Factory-sirens shrieked; groups of children straggled out of an elementary school opposite. And the postman, observing Mrs. Hewston in her basement kitchen, descended the area steps and handed her three letters with the remark: “All for your young gentleman.”
A moment later the young gentleman was opening them. One was a returned article from the Daily Mail (too good for them, of course, he consoled himself); another was a bill from an Oxford tailor equally famous for high prices and long credit. And the third was the following:
The School House, Oakington. December 15th
MY DEAR REVELL,
I don’t think we ever met, but as you are an O.O. and I am the present Head of Oakington, perhaps we can do without an introduction. My friend Simmons of Oxford mentioned you to me some time ago as a neat solver of mysteries, and as there seems as if there might be one at Oakington just now, I take the somewhat large liberty of asking your help. Could you spend the coming week-end here? I should be glad to put you up, and there will be the final house-match to watch on Monday, if you are interested.
P.S.–A good train leaves King’s Cross at 2.30 to-morrow afternoon. Dinner-jacket.
Revell digested the communication over a second and more potent gin- and-vermouth. It seemed to him distinctly the sort of thing which (in books) drew from its reader the comment “Whew!” Accustomed and even pleased as he was to receive week-end invitations, the Headmaster of Oakington was hardly a host he would have chosen. He disliked schoolmasters and sentimental revisitings with almost equal degrees of intensity, and the two in conjunction could raise in his mind only the most dismal of prospects.