“If you really think they want for a detective a man who has had such a cloistered existence as I have, why then I had better go.”

Murder at Liberty Hall (1941) follows social scientist James Hardwicke’s attempts to investigate apparent pyromania among the student body at the progressive co-educational Scrope House School (‘Liberty Hall’). His enquiries are forced to expand when a teacher is poisoned at a faculty drinks party.  James must decide if there is a link between the fires and the murder, and whether the poisoned sherry was intended for the victim or someone else.  Initially resistant, he is persuaded to go and takes a friend, Caroline Fisher, who fancies a job at Scrope House.  Before arriving at the school the first puzzle appears: a large crate in the middle of the road, with an address printed in capital letters:


‘I suppose,’ I said, ‘that we’re in Yorkshire but its impossible to believe that the Archbishop dropped this.’

‘Why?’ said Caroline.

Oh, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Intuition.’

‘Well, then you’re detecting already.’

Murder at Liberty Hall was well received by reviewers. The New York Times Book Review said, ‘This is one of those gleeful cerebral thrillers… full of quips and cranks and wanton wiles…The effect is always amusing…And, oh yes, there’s a perfectly good mystery.’  The Saturday Review praised the novel’s ‘sly humour and good puzzle.’  Kirkus Reviews noted,  ‘A touch of Dorothy Sayers in the dry English wit, the leisurely pace, the literary fancying-up and all very clever.’

In addition to that ‘perfectly good mystery,’  Murder at Liberty Hall tackles progressive education and highlights the plight of refugees escaping Hitler’s regime in the late Thirties.  A contemporary of George Orwell, author Alan Clutton-Brock’s criticism of Communism and love of cricket are among several digressions that make the book an engrossing read.  (Although anyone who has read an account of public school cricket may feel that the Scrope House match appears less as gentle satire and more as straight reporting.)  But the tone turns serious when depicting the pre-war political storm clouds and the issues raised remain pertinent today.  One of the most arresting sections is when a political refugee teacher explains to the naive James how few can be trusted:

‘My dear Hardwicke,’ Rosenberg said, ‘that’s where your innocence comes in. Once you get the idea that any action is justifiable if it’s for the good of the party anything can happen.  The ordinary rules mean nothing at all; its quite incredible, until you see it happen, how quickly a charming, perhaps rather silly enthusiast, as you put it, will develop into a ruthless Machiavellian.’ 

Clutton-Brock’s daughter Eleanor said rereading the book was like hearing his voice again.   After this one journey into detective fiction, Clutton-Brock returned to academic writing, becoming the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge and serving as art critic at The Times.  A gain for the art world, but a loss to detective fiction.  In his 1976 obituary, the paper lauded  him as ‘a man of high intelligence and charm’  whose wit, wide reading and store of historical knowledge were instinct in all that he wrote.’