Since, as a critic once remarked, all dons read detective stories, it’s not surprising that many mystery novels have been set in the English university town of Oxford. From Dorothy L. Sayers to Colin Dexter, fictional detectives, amateur and professional, have prowled its streets, its pubs, and even the halls of its many colleges. Academics have often been featured as detectives, most notably in the works of Edmund Crispin featuring Gervase Fen. While they might well have enjoyed many of these books, only a handful of Oxford dons actually wrote detective novels set at their colleges. J.C. Masterman, a fellow of Christ College, is a prime example of a don who excelled, however briefly, at the form. His An Oxford Tragedy (1933) not only provides an accurate portrayal of Oxford but also is an entertaining and well-constructed classical detective novel. But where Masterman’s novel is at its best when he sticks to college life, Katharine Farrer, the wife of an Oxford don, moves with assured ease from the college halls to the private homes of that ancient city, especially in her marvelously titled first novel, The Missing Link, which involves the kidnapping of a don’s baby.
While it might have seemed natural to make her detective a don, given her background, Farrer chose to use a professional policeman as her protagonist. In many respects, the Oxford-educated Richard Ringwood resembles other gentleman coppers in the genre, including Michael Innes’ Inspector John Appleby and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, though his casual disregard for such legal amenities as search warrants might cause either of those gentlemen to frown. Ringwood was, in many ways, inspired by Katharine’s husband, Austin Farrer, who was described by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as “possibly the greatest Anglican mind of the twentieth century.” Ringwood is 33 years old when The Missing Link, the first book in the trilogy, opens, newly engaged to Clare Liddicote, a 22-year-old recent Oxford graduate who is staying on at the university for another semester to enjoy learning for its own sake. Their courtship mirrors that of the Farrers, who married in 1937 after a four-year-long engagement when Austin was 33, already well-established in his profession, and Katharine 26. But while there are some other minor superficial similarities, it is in their attitude and outlook on life and to each other that Richard and Clare most resemble the Farrers.
Chief among these attitudes is the sense that their marriage is to be a partnership. Richard may be older and more experienced than Clare, but he respects her intellect and her abilities, even to the point of soliciting her help in carrying out his current investigation. He is more interested in gaining her approval than the appreciation of either his fellows or superiors. He is never happier than when he can discuss a point in a case or in a book or in a play with Clare. They are the two halves that make a whole. As Clare remarks, after Richard quotes from The Wind in the Willows, “Have you noticed how we have all the same favorite books?”
All evidence points to the fact that Austin and Katharine Farrer shared a similar relationship, even though he enjoyed a far more celebrated public life. His work as a theologian is so revered, even today, that in 2004, on the centenary of his birth, major celebratory workshops on his teachings and writings were held in Oxford and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was Chaplain and a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, from 1935 until 1960, and Warden of Keble College, Oxford, from 1960 to his death in 1968. Most of his scholarly writings on theology remain in print. But he was more than a scholar. His fellows also described him as perhaps the finest pulpit preacher of his era, a minister who knew how to reach his congregation, primarily students at his college.
It was probably only natural that Katharine was attracted to a theologian, since her own father, F.H.J. Newton, was a noted minister. She was born in 1911 in Wiltshire but brought up along with Arthur, her eight-year-younger brother, in two successive parsonages in Herfordshire. She attended St. Helen’s School in Northwood, and at 18 went up to St. Anne’s, Oxford, where she read Classical Mods and Greats. While still a student, she published her first short stories under a pseudonym. Education was an important aspect of her family life. On her father’s side, she was related to Miss Frances Mary Buss, a pioneer in higher education for women in England in the nineteenth century. Miss Buss, as she was known, opened the North London Collegiate School for Girls in 1850 at the age of 23 and later worked with Emily Davies in opening exams for women at Cambridge in 1865. Katharine also taught, following her graduation in 1933, as a classics teacher first at Bexhill, then at Gerrards Cross. Already engaged to Austin, she also instructed scripture classes. On her mother’s side, she was related to the Des Anges family who were involved in the Port Royal movement in France during the reign of Louis XIV. The movement was started by Cornelius Jansen, who taught that people are saved by God’s grace, not by their own will power, a theological position that fits in quite well with the teachings of Katharine’s husband.
At Oxford, the Farrers naturally gravitated to like-minded intellectual Christians. Austin—and presumably Katharine—belonged to the Inklings, a group of scholars dedicated to the destruction of scientific materialism, whose other members included founder J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Charles Williams, the metaphysical poet and novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of the Lord Peter mystery series, and C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist who wrote science fiction and children’s fantasy literature. Lewis, in particular, held the Farrers in high esteem, dedicating one of his books jointly to them. Austin ministered to Lewis and both he and Katharine took care of him while he was dying. The gravesite of the Farrers (Katharine died four years after Austin in 1972) is one of the stops on the C.S. Lewis walking tour of Oxford. Although there are plenty of inside jokes about Oxford life and personalities in The Missing Link, C.S. Lewis isn’t mentioned. However, one of the other Inklings is referred to when Clare admonishes Richard to stop talking like a character in a Charles Williams novel. Like many good faculty wives, Katharine was fond of entertaining and was an enterprising cook. An invitation to the Farrers for dinner meant good food as well as lively conversation.
Other elements in The Missing Link reflect aspects of the Farrers’ life together. Living in a place like Oxford, they were exposed to all kinds of ideas on the rearing of children. Katharine certainly shows where her own sympathies lie. One of the highlights of the novel is the contrasting theories on how to raise a baby, the loving attentive one displayed by one don and his wife and the thoroughly modern creed of benign neglect practiced by the, as Jacques Barzun so accurately describes them, “terrifyingly intellectual” Links, an approach that today might well earn them a visit from Social Services. But there are even more personal touches from the Farrers’ home life. The affectionate portrait of Dr. Field’s developmentally disabled—“deficient,” as her employer describes her—serving girl no doubt is drawn from their experiences in dealing with their own daughter, Caroline, who was born in 1939. Katharine was a small woman with what her nephew described as “an almost sparrow-like countenance.” Her small size made for a difficult delivery. Caroline was born developmentally disabled and her need for special education required that she attended a residential institution. Both K (as her friends called her) and Austin were devastated by the need for Caroline to leave home but that pain was moderated by the girl’s progress at school. Today Caroline is in her mid-60s and still lives in Oxford at a beautiful convent where for many years she worked in the Church Embroidery Room. Although she is now retired, she continues to work there as a volunteer.
When Katharine returned to work, her own scholarly endeavors complemented those of her husband’s. In 1949, she translated Gabriel Marcel’s major 1935 work, Etre et Avoir, into English as Being & Having: An Existentialist Diary. It’s worth noting here that Franco-American scholar Jacques Barzun was very critical of Farrer’s French in her third and last Ringwood novel, Gownsman’s Gallows, published in 1957, maintaining it wasn’t altogether “correct.” Of course, translating French into English requires different skills from doing the opposite, the chief requirement being a full understanding of what the author you are translating actually means to convey to his audience. In this case, Farrer obviously knew her Christian existentialism. That’s why fellow mystery writer Anthony Boucher’s translations of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels are so much better than those done by ordinary translators, however good their French might be.
Having said that, much of the French used in the original edition of Gownsman’s Gallows has been translated into English in the present edition by Sallie and Victor Verrette. A great deal of Farrer’s French seems to have been employed for show, and it makes no sense to us to have one sentence of dialog in French and the other five in English when it has been made clear that the characters are speaking French all of the time. Besides, it shouldn’t be necessary to know another language to enjoy an English detective novel, Dorothy Sayers notwithstanding. (She even had long passages in Latin.) However, it’s possible that Farrer chose to put some of the more vulgar phrases in French so as not to offend English readers of the 1950s. Apparently it’s acceptable to be racy as long as you do it in French. We’ve left just enough French to give the book a bit of Gallic flavor but not enough to irritate the average reader. One bit of French that remains (you’ll have to look for it yourself) contains a clue that would give too much away if translated, but rest assured that it’s not necessary to solve the mystery. Farrer also obviously enjoyed writing verse in French. She was fond of poetry in all its guises but was especially taken by the Romantics.
Farrer’s only mainstream novel, At Odds With Morning (1960), reflects her interest in theology, featuring, as it does, a satire of a self-appointed saint. But even her three Ringwood novels, The Missing Link (1952), The Cretan Counterfeit (1954) and Gownsman’s Gallows (1957), occasionally hint at the theology she shared with her husband. A policeman’s lot is a pretty thankless one, as Clare comes to find out. The reward is not in being praised by those you help but in just doing your job—and doing it well—because that’s how people ought to live their lives. Being good and being good at what you do should be reward enough. A good Christian doesn’t get into heaven by doing good deeds. He or she gets into heaven because God is good. But for all her interest in theology, God isn’t mentioned much in The Missing Link, although there are obviously touches of the supernatural, especially in the prophecies made by the old gypsy woman. A literalist might say if you believe in God and if God is good, why doesn’t He just tell Ringwood outright where the baby is hidden. The answer to that question lies in one of Austin Farrer’s writings when he comments that when Jesus was confronted by a bent nail in his days as a carpenter, he didn’t resort to invoking the spirit of the Holy Ghost to straighten it. He got out a hammer and anvil.
Unfortunately, the Farrers weren’t always able to solve their own personal problems as easily. Katharine suffered from frequent bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis throughout her life, exacerbated by a heavy smoking habit. Plagued by insomnia as well, she became addicted to alcohol and barbiturates in the late 1950s, bringing an end to a promising career as a writer. Her various illnesses required her to become increasingly dependent on Austin, who, in turn, suffered from the stress and often found himself greatly tired. After his death, the highly strung Katharine moved into a smaller apartment far from the traffic noises (Oxford’s narrow streets weren’t planned with the automobile in mind) that had so bothered her during the earlier years of her marriage. She continued to entertain there and to work on readying the three volumes of Austin’s sermons for publication but did not live to see them published. She died at home on March 26, 1972 following a fall.
The best of Katharine and Austin’s life together is to be found in her books, especially in her often sparkling and witty dialog, no doubt inspired by the conversations at hundreds of Oxford dinners where the couple entertained the best and the brightest of their generation. As important as religion was in their lives, you don’t need to know theology to appreciate her mystery novels. Always the good hostess, Katharine well knew that the first role of the mystery writer is to entertain. The Missing Link, whose clever title you will come to appreciate more fully once you finish the book, is a sly, witty book that meanders its way, often comically, to one of the more exciting—and terrifying—climaxes to be found in any traditional mystery. The Cretan Counterfeit is an often wryly amusing look at archaeology and the extent that some people will go to earn a reputation. Her third and final Ringwood book, Gownsman’s Gallows, is set in two of the places she loved best, Oxford and France, and is as much an adventure novel as it is a clever detective story.
Tom & Enid Schantz
Revised July 2005