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a sinister student

Kel Richards is an Australian radio broadcaster and crime novelist who’s undertaking a series of classic “cozy” 1930s-style murder mysteries with C.S. Lewis as sleuth, interweaving detecting with conversations about mere Christianity. (The British publisher is an imprint of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, so the apologetics are intended as the real point.)

He contacted me a year ago because I maintain a bibliography of the Inklings as represented in fiction and he wanted to be entered on it. I ordered and read the first two books, which take place in a fictional locale somewhere in England, and reviewed them.

I guess Mr Richards was impressed with my perspicacity or something, because he asked if I would read over the manuscript of his fourth book, The Sinister Student, which at last takes place in Oxford and introduces Tolkien and more of the Inklings. (Warren Lewis had been in the first book as well.) Now the book has been published, with my name in the acknowledgments at the end, so I might as well report on it.

The most important thing I told Mr Richards was that I recognized that this was fiction and not obliged to follow reality in any respects. That this is just, in the end, a fancy of the imagination is signaled by the explanation in the Author’s Note at the end that, although Warren Lewis was still only a Captain in 1936, when this story is set, “I have decided to honour him with the rank of Major [which he received later] throughout this series.” “The Major” is how we think of him in retrospect, so “The Major” he will be. Consequently, I said that even changing nothing in response to my comments would not seriously harm the book. Only the desire for what Tolkien in On Fairy-stories would call the inner consistency of reality justifies making any comments at all.

The factual comments I made concerned Oxford geography and University customs as much as the Inklings, and Mr Richards was very selective about adopting them. One geographic clunker I caught was fixed; another was left in. The only thing that received any serious rewriting in response to my comments was a paragraph on p. 139 in which Tolkien muses about his wizards and magic in his fiction. But my suggestion, regarding the same paragraph, that it’s properly spelled “Middle-earth” and not “Middle Earth” was not adopted. I know how much that error irritates some, so don’t blame me for that.

John D. Rateliff in his comment on receiving the book is critical of Richards for omitting Dr. Havard from the gathering of the Inklings that occurs in Chapter Two. But I complimented Richards on the accuracy and relevance of his choice of attendees, and also his use of various known characteristics of the members. Unlike John, I don’t believe Havard was an Inklings attendee this early in their history (we can go into the arguments for and against this some other time), and even if I had marked this as a deviation from historical reality, I doubt – from other changes not made – that the author would have done anything in response. It would have required heavy rewriting which he was clearly not prepared to undertake for a quick light read of a novel.

I’d read the manuscript on a computer tablet while visiting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I enjoyed the book along with the plays. It’s surprisingly whimsical for a serious rule-following “cozy” 1930s-style mystery – you’ll see what I mean when you read it – and a hint from the author that there will be more leaves me interested in reading them too.

About the Author: David Bratman

David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.