While lecturing in England, Homer confronts the criminal dons of Oxford
William Dubchick is too keen a student of the writings of Charles Darwin to not see that the world of biology has evolved past him. Decades ago, he was the foremost mind in Oxford University’s department of natural sciences, but as the field’s focus narrowed to the microscopic level he became nothing more than a gray-haired, cantankerous relic. He has a small fiefdom, manned by Helen Farfrae, a committed disciple who, Dubchick is annoyed to learn, someone is trying to kill. It is into this world that Homer Kelly, Emersonian scholar and part-time sleuth, comes to spend a semester lecturing. Though expecting a vacation, he finds Oxford to be a swamp of theft, fraud, and murder. Besides the attempts on Farfrae’s life, he must reckon with a murdered priest, the theft of a dodo’s portrait, and suspicious claims that long-lost Darwinian artifacts have been found. With an academic climate like this, it’s amazing that any of the Oxford dons live to see tenure.
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Dead as a Dodo
A Homer Kelly Mystery
By Jane Langton
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1996 Jane Langton
All rights reserved.
My Dear Hooker,
The hawks have behaved like gentlemen, and have cast up pellets with lots of seeds in them; and I have just had a parcel of partridge's feet well caked with mud!!! Adios,
Your insane and perverse friend,
C. Darwin (1856)
* * *
When Homer and Mary Kelly came to Oxford that October, they were not the only new arrivals.
As their bus from the airport began nosing through the suburbs, a swarm of goldfinches landed on the oak trees in the Botanic Gardens, pausing on the way to their winter quarters in Cornwall. Chattering and calling, they rose from one tree, came down on another, and fluttered up again to change places.
On the Cherwell, beyond the University Parks, a flock of migrating swans settled on the water, remembering from last year the bridge where people threw down torn scraps of lettuce and kernels of cracked corn.
And beside the ditch next to the car-rental company on the Botley Road a small cluster of wigeon rested on their flight from the north. One of the females stood on the tangled bank and pecked furiously at the feathers on her back. Wading into the water, she loosened from her feet the mud of the River Spey. The mud settled at once to the bottom of the creek, but the seeds embedded in it rose to the surface and floated to the shore.
They were peculiar seeds, new to the county of Oxfordshire. They lay on the damp ground for only a few hours.
Then a succession of migrating mallards trampled them into the soil, and at once the foreign seeds made themselves at home.
Homer and Mary Kelly knew nothing about these arrivals. They saw only the other Americans on the bus from Gatwick. Most were reference librarians heading for a conference in the Oxford University Museum.
Mary introduced herself to the woman across the aisle. She was surprised to learn about the conference in the museum. "That's where my husband is going to be lecturing. What kind of conference is it?"
The librarian fished in her pocketbook and showed Mary a pamphlet, New Directions in Information Storage.
"Oh, then you won't be listening to Homer," said Mary. "He doesn't know anything about information storage. He'll be tutoring a few students, and he has to give a lot of lectures on American literature."
The librarian leaned across the aisle and stared past Mary at Homer, who was slumped against the window fast asleep. "You mean, you're Mr. and Mrs. Homer Kelly? Like your husband's a famous detective?"
"Oh, well, it's true he was a detective once, but not anymore. He's just a teacher now. I mean, we both teach. Homer has a lectureship for this term from one of the Oxford colleges. It's just Homer, unfortunately. They didn't offer one to me."
"How sexist!" said the librarian. "You two teach at Harvard, right? And now at Oxford? How distinguished!"
Mary smiled. If the librarian knew the truth about teaching at Harvard, she wouldn't be so impressed. It was like teaching anywhere. There were good students and bad students, academic rivalries, malicious gossip, the constant scrabbling up of the next day's lecture, the endless grading of papers and exams, and faculty meetings so boring they were like penances for abominable crimes.
"The golden towers of Oxford," said the librarian sentimentally, looking out the window as they crossed Magdalen Bridge. "The dreaming spires."
"Ah, yes," said Mary, gazing up at the tower of Magdalen, rising beside them on the right.
There were no dreaming spires at the Gloucester Green bus station, and no green. It was a busy square with buses pulling in and out and passengers getting on and off.
Homer roused himself sleepily and followed Mary and the librarians down off the bus. "What day is this anyway?" he said, smoothing down his wild hair. "Wednesday or Thursday?"
"Wednesday," said Mary cheerfully. "We're just in time for the reception."
"Reception? My God, what reception?"
"The reception at the museum. You remember, Homer, Dr. Jamison invited us."
"But everybody else will be bug experts and mineralogists, people of that ilk." Homer groaned. "All I want to do is go to bed. I didn't get a wink of sleep on that goddamned plane."
"Buck up, Homer." Mary prodded his arm. "Look, the taxis are right out of an old movie."
They dragged their baggage across the brick pavement, and Mary opened the back door of a neat black car with high rounded curves.
"Sorry, love," said the driver, "take the one up front."
"Ah," mumbled Homer, grinning. "British fair play. There's always a queue."CHAPTER 2
"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
* * *
Mark Soffit was a student of zoology, but he failed to notice the rare black squirrel dodging out of his way as he approached the Oxford University Museum. Nor did he look up to see the heavy flapping of a pair of gray lag geese racing over the roof on their way to the River Cherwell. His thoughts were fixed on the object of his journey from the United States.
The great William Dubchick would surely be present at this reception. Mark was eager to meet him. The whole thrust of his application for a Rhodes scholarship had centered on Dubchick. The opportunity to study with the eminent Oxford zoologist William Dubchick will advance my investigation of the work of Charles Darwin.
In his application he had not admitted that Dubchick had never heard of him. Nor did he explain that his concentration on Darwin would be an attack on that old nineteenth-century fossil. In any case, the application had worked, and here he was, a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford, about to meet the greatest naturalist in the world.
At the door to the museum Mark looked down at himself. Back in Arizona he had bought an expensive tweed jacket, assuming it was the right uniform for an Oxford man. The jacket was crisp and bristling with woolly fibers. But when he opened the door and saw the crowd in the courtyard, there wasn't a tweed jacket in sight. Most of the younger people standing around with glasses in their hands were wearing jeans and T-shirts.
Blanching, Mark backed up, tore off his jacket, and dumped it over an umbrella stand. He wrestled with his tie, stuffed it in the pocket of the jacket, and undid the top button of his shirt.
Then, gazing at the men and women talking and laughing among the animal skeletons and glass cases, he started forward, wondering which was the great Dubchick.
God, who was this? An old man was walking toward him, smiling and extending his hand. He had a full white beard and a long fringe of untidy white hair. Mark placed him instantly as one of those embarrassing outcasts who hang around the edges of a party. Turning his back on the outstretched hand, he grinned at nobody, waved hugely, and walked into the courtyard.
And there his jittering self-doubt blinded him. He did not look up at the high pyramidal roof of glass, he did not see the towering cast-iron columns crowned with pond lilies and pineapples. He ignored the lofty grinning skeleton of the iguanodon, he missed the golden statues of scientists surrounding the courtyard, even though he ran smack into the pedestal of Roger Bacon. Does it ever occur to you, said Bacon, that the mind is illuminated by divine truth?
No such thought had ever occurred to Mark, who had barked his shin painfully. Shit.
He had to get in somehow. Mark studied the little groups of people standing among the bones and picked out a likely trio, a big sleepy-looking guy with frowsy hair, a clever-looking tall woman, and a plump balding man in a business suit.
"Hello," said the woman, moving aside to let him in. "I'm Mary Kelly. This is my husband, Homer. Do you know Dr. Jamison, the director of the museum?"
Suddenly the entire courtyard with all its bones and glass cases and stone statues and living people was transfigured by the sun. The lofty space was shot with arcs and shafts of light. There was a pervasive sound, too, as dazzling as the light, a murmuration of voices. Somehow it was more than the multiplication of the jabbering conviviality at the reception. The sum of all the talk and rustling movement was a pleasantly mysterious humming, not quite corporeal, not quite the simple product of sound waves ricocheting from stone and glass and bone.
Mark was not dazzled. He merely blinked in the blinding sunshine and raised his voice. Introducing himself, he explained hastily that he was a Rhodes scholar, here to study with William Dubchick: He looked around vacantly. "Can you tell me if Professor Dubchick is here?"
The tall sleepy-looking man looked around too. "I don't know what he looks like, but we've just met his daughter Freddy. There she is, over there beside the giraffe."
"Thanks," said Mark, turning away abruptly. Thrusting his way past other clusters of people with wineglasses in their hands, he dodged carefully around the statuary pedestals. Aristotle glowered down at him and muttered something about matter and essence, but Mark paid no attention. His own matter and essence were bound up together in a gristly knot of anxiety. Where in the hell was Dubchick's daughter? She had vanished. She must be hiding behind another one of those damned statues.
Freddy Dubchick was not hiding behind a statue, she was lurking behind a construction of metal scaffolding in one of the shadowy arcades around the courtyard, trying to be alone with Oliver Clare. Oliver stooped over her. His clergyman's collar was modestly visible above his dark sweater. His hair was yellow, his eyes were blue. He was talking earnestly about her father.
There was a misunderstanding, Oliver said. Freddy just didn't understand how completely he agreed with her father. "I mean, I've been reading The Origin of Species. I've got a whole new understanding of creation."
"Oh, you mean you don't believe in God anymore?" Freddy grinned at him. She knew she shouldn't be teasing him about his faith, because it meant so much to him, but sometimes she couldn't help it. "I'm just joking."
But Oliver took it seriously. "Oh, of course I believe in God. Oh, not the God of Genesis. I know He didn't create the world in seven days. Of course not. I mean God as the designer of natural selection." Oliver's blue eyes looked away from Freddy, and he waved his hand at the courtyard, with all its bones and fossils and stuffed beasts. "All this. I mean God's plan is so much grander, when you look at it this way."
"Oh, so that's it," said someone, moving up beside them from the courtyard. "You mean it's God's fault? God is the villain? It's God who's responsible for carnivores, and all the disemboweling and bloodsucking? Well, I wondered who it was. Now I'll know whom to blame."
Freddy laughed. "No, no, I don't think that's what he means at all. Who are you?"
"My name is Shaw. Hal Shaw. I'm from Manhattan. Manhattan, Kansas, that is."
"Oh, of course," said Freddy, beaming at him. "I know who you are. You're working with my father."
Oliver Clare looked at Hal Shaw balefully. He was some sort of American barbarian, with his broad muscular body and violently red hair. Oliver appealed to Freddy, murmuring in her ear, "Freddy, I've got to talk to you."
But Freddy was interested in the barbarian from Kansas. She was interested too in his matching wife, who surged up beside him. The wife also had red hair, but it was a cosmetic purple-red, not the incendiary orange that had flamed up on her husband's skull the day he was born.
"You're Fredericka Dubchick?" said Margo Shaw. "Hal's going to be working with your father, and I've got a job in the museum too. I'll be topping up the spirit jars for a month or two. Isn't that exciting? What's Hal been telling you? That God is dead?" She had a brittle voice, a high-comic manner. Her husband stood silent while Margo waxed whimsical. "Isn't this place incredible? Do you suppose the skeletons talk to each other when we're not here? Perhaps they dance! Imagine the clatter!"
"Oh, I wonder if they do," said Freddy, enjoying the joke. "Can you imagine the elephant waltzing with the bison?"
Margo tittered. Oliver tried to laugh. Hal's face remained stony. He was trying to get used to the fact that his wife's vivacious chatter was a continuous repetition of a small set of playful remarks. She held only a single hand of conversational cards. In the Greek sculpture gallery of the Metropolitan she had said gaily, Do you suppose they talk to each other when we're not here? Perhaps they dance! And he had been charmed. But on the day before their wedding she had said the same thing to the best man about the stone dignitaries in the university chapel, Do you suppose they dance when we're not here?—and he had felt a pang of doubt. Since then, he had learned to his sorrow that his wife had conversational ploys filed away in the drawers of her mind, cross-indexed under appropriate cues. Whimsy was one of her stocks-in-trade, another was acid commentary. A third was an alarming aptitude for small wily plots.
"Freddy," urged Oliver Clare. He tugged at her arm, but at once someone else came pushing into the conversation, staring hungrily at Freddy.
It was Mark Soffit. At last he had found Dubchick's daughter. He introduced himself and explained hastily that he was a Rhodes scholar. "Can you tell me if your father is here?" God, she was cute.
Freddy Dubchick looked at him patiently. "Yes, of course. I'll take you to him."
Hal and Margo Shaw drifted away. The others made a small procession with Dubchick's daughter Freddy in the lead, the clergyman Oliver Clare next in line, and Mark excitedly bringing up the rear. Swiftly Freddy led them past the horny heads of the rhinoceroses in their glass case, past Isaac Newton gazing down at the apple between his shoes, and the tall melancholy figure of Charles Darwin. For once Mark glanced up and grinned. Darwin was the target of his dissertation. Beware, old-timer.
Then he paused in dismay. Freddy Dubchick was hurrying up to an elderly man, stopping beside him and kissing him. All Mark's anticipation collapsed at once in an awful sinking feeling. It wasn't, it couldn't be—?
It was. William Dubchick was the old man he had snubbed, the one who had stretched out a welcoming hand. "Father," said Freddy, "here's someone who would like to meet you." She turned to Mark. "I'm sorry, your name is—?"
Mark could hardly find his voice. He swallowed, tried to speak, failed, tried again. "Soffit," he croaked. "I'm a Rhodes scholar. You know, from the United States." He held out a trembling hand.
There was a slight hesitation before the old man took it and nodded at him soberly.
Blinking, blushing, Mark shook Professor Dubchick's hand fervently. He shook it and shook it. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't recognize you at first."
As if that makes up for your rudeness. Dubchick smiled at his daughter and put his arm around her. He turned to the clergyman and included him in the smile. Then he glanced at his watch and said, "It's almost time for my talk." He nodded at Mark Soffit. "Excuse me. I'll just go upstairs for my notes."
"Oh, sir," said Mark. "I hope we can meet again. Like I'll make an appointment, okay?"
Professor Dubchick was heading for the stairs. Without turning around he waved his hand, as if to say, Do as you like. On the way up the broad stone staircase he reflected on the brutal way the young man had ignored him, and told himself sadly that it was his own fault. He had committed a sin. And with each passing year it was more sinful than before, more criminal.
He had been born so long ago, that was the crime. Every year it was worse than ever. The date of his birth was unspeakable. The evidence was visible in the mirror, that pop-up old gentleman who kept coming back, getting in the way of the reflected self he remembered. William was so old that he thought of his past life in epochs—the epoch of childhood, the years of schooling, the decade of zoological apprenticeship in Ecuador, the era of beach exploration and the study of crustaceans, the long season of teaching and research at Oxford, and at last the period of summing up in which he was now engaged.
Striding down the corridor of the gallery upstairs, he smiled grimly as he thought of the young upstart who had refused to shake his hand. In forty years that boy too would be an old has-been, and William would sit up in his grave and laugh.
Excerpted from Dead as a Dodo by Jane Langton. Copyright © 1996 Jane Langton. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Dead as a Dodo is one of the best and most refreshingly original mysteries in the distinguished Homer and Mary Kelly series. Jane Langton is well known for her mystery series featuring Homer and Mary Kelly (who both lecture at Harvard). In these books, she always manages to combine new perspectives on important 19th century thinkers by putting their ideas into today's context. The mysteries are illuminated by plots that investigate those philosophies, drawings by Ms. Langton of the surroundings, and intense local research into the physical surroundings. While her works in the past have mostly focused on Massachusetts, Dead as Dodo takes the Kellys across the pond to Oxford for a guest lectureship. The change of venue is a good one for fans of her work. Oxford is rich ground for intellectual explorations. The book does a marvelous job of bringing Darwin's theory of evolution into the context of modern life and its meaning for spiritual beliefs. At the same time, Ms. Langton uses Lewis Carroll as a counterfoil with quotes and images from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As always, Ms. Langton invents few facts, but does brilliantly extrapolate from what she finds on hand to see plot and story possibilities that would escape most visitors to the same environs. (When she wrote about Walden Pond, I could not believe that I was unaware of so many details . . . until I drove out to check.) One of Ms. Langton's on-going themes in the series is how much humans fail to notice that is right under their noses. This book is one of the best at developing that theme. While some would find sections of these mysteries a bit slow, Dead as a Dodo was the best paced mystery by Ms. Langton in years. I found myself enjoying every nuance on each page. The mystery itself (like most of her mysteries) is not so terribly difficult to solve. The characters are remarkably rich and interesting ones, though, and will draw and keep your attention throughout. After you finish this story, I suggest that you spend some time discussing what the theory of evolution means for how you think about the way life operates. Many of the concepts from The Origin of Species have become so deeply imbedded in modern thought that we are unaware of the assumptions we make. I found that this book allowed me to revisit those assumptions and to change many of them which I have held for many years. For example, what does it mean that humans have vast sections of their brains that are unused? Why would we evolve this way? While no one can know for sure, it is certainly a fascinating question. Adapt to the circumstances around you to thrive . . . or find yourself being like a fish out of water! Was this review helpful to you? Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution