|C S Lewis
(creator: Kel Richards)
|C(live) S(taples) Lewis (1898-1963) who did not like his given names and was always known to his friends as Jack, was a (real) British novelist, poet, academic, lay theologian, broadcaster, and lecturer. He held academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and is best known for his fictional work, especially The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, and for his non-fiction Christian apologetics, including Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife and questioning some of his own earlier simplistic ideas.
The (fictional) C S Lewis, as imagined by Kel Richards, seems closely modelled on what we know about the original. He "was dressed as he always was: an old grey Harris tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows; trousers of thickish grey flannel, creased and very out at the knees; sturdy brown walking boots, and an old grey felt hat. With his ruddy, cheerful face he looked like a farmer who'd be happy to stop for a chat about the weather and price of sheep." He was "the mildest of men" but had a "great voice .... that could fill an Oxford lecture hall." According to his brother, he "could run rings around Sherlock Holmes for sheer brainpower". Having made the journey "from atheism, to philosophical idealism, to theism, to Christianity," he was "someone who relished a good scrap over serious ideas."
Kelvin Barry ("Kel") Richards (1946 - ) was born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. He read philosophy both for his undergraduate and his Master's degrees at the University of New England, New South Wales and went on to become a journalist. He is the author of some 50 books ranging from children's stories to crime novels, as well as the bestselling Aussie Bible, and is a long established Australian radio host.
He first read CS Lewis as a teenager when he discovered that "being a Christian, you don't have to turn off your brain." He is now a Lay Canon at St Andrew's Cathedral in Sydney (he says that means he's a small bore!). He is married to Barbara.
The Corpse in the Cellar (2013)
The Corpse in the Cellar is set the summer of 1933, when Oxford don Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends as Jack, is on a walking holiday with his brother Warnie and (fictitious) young ex-student and friend Tom Morris, who is the narrator throughout and who luckily has "the ability to report conversations verbatim." When Jack's wallet is accidentally destroyed, they visit a bank in "Market Plumpton" in Cambridgeshire to replenish their funds - and walk straight into the scene of a "totally impossible" murder.The victim is in the vault of the bank alone, cut off by brick and steel from the rest of the world. Yet he has been stabbed from behind and the murder weapon has vanished. It is time to call in Scotland Yard - not that Jack really needs their help.
The tale is told in an enthusiastic and racy if sometimes naive style that echoes the character of the young narrator as when he tells us, ' "Jack has twice the brains of any Scotland Yard fellow," boasts Warnie "with brotherly loyalty. Although it was more than that, I knew: my old tutor had a brain the size of the Albert Hall".' But it is not so much the size of his brain that impresses the reader as the inanity of the people around him!
Meanwhile Jack explains to the ever-argumentative Tom about the "jigsaw puzzle of life" that only make sense if you look at "the picture on the top of the box. That will show us the whole picture and how everything fits together - or is meant to fit together .... When an atheist is converted to Christianity, as I was, what he finds is not that he's lost everything he once believed but that it now fits into a larger picture - the picture towards which it had been pointing all the time."
However, Warnie did not seem to have much time for Jack's theological ideas: " Warnie had completely lost interest in our discussion and had pulled a pack of grimy old cards from his pocket and begun to play solitaire". It is he who later tells a not-too-bright local police constable, "If you'd read as many detective novels as I have, you'd know those Scotland Yard chaps never know what's going on. Always has to be someone to tell them!" It is all very simplistic but it makes an interesting story even if some of the dialogue sounds not only deliberately dated but sometimes rather clumsy.
Jack enjoys being provoked by the agnostic young Tom Morris into putting up a lively defence of Christianity which is certainly of some interest, but, once the murder mystery gets under way, all this talk slows down the action and proves something of a distraction. Even so, there is an interesting summary of Lewis's teaching about "the vital bit science can never discover - the intention, the purpose, behind this world behind our lives" - but is a rather simplistic detective story like this, complete with melodramatic ending, the most effective way of communicating such ideas? It was an imaginative idea to involve CS Lewis, but is he not worthy of a less naive interrogator than young Tom?
The author explains that he felt it necessary to write several books in the series so to do justice to CS Lewis's character and beliefs. It will be interesting to find out what else he has to tell us about him.
The Country House Murders (2014)
The Country House Murders is set in the spring of 1934, less than 12 months after the previous case. It gets off to an arresting start with young Tom Morris writing to tell his old tutor C S Lewis that he (Tom) is about to be arrested and charged with murder. Tom had been given a job cataloguing the library of Plumwood Hall when one of the family had keeled over at afternoon tea after eating a slice of fruit cake laced with poison. Inspector Hyde (frequently written off by Tom as weasel-like) is convinced that Tom must be the guilty party as he had been sitting next to the victim! This does not really seem a very likely situation.
"Jack" Lewis (who seems to have all the time in the world to spare) soon finds that he is faced with further mysteries: why did the victim's husband disappear twelve months before? Why is a strange tattooed foreigner living in a cottage on the moors? Who is the wild man of the woods? And most puzzling of all: how did a massive dose of cyanide get into just one slice of cake?
It does not make a very convincing plot as the aristocratic family are little more than caricatures. Jack Lewis with his "great brain" has little time for Inspector Hyde: "Our friend Hyde is a man for writing rosters and organising traffic duty, not solving puzzles," but he welcomes meeting up again with the much more intelligent Inspector Crispin of Scotland Yard who tells him, "I respect that deductive, detective mind of yours." All the talk of his mighty brain doesn't always seem matched by Jack's actual behaviour, as when he raises the question of how the poison got into the cake.
' "What do you suggest?" I asked.
"Tracing the progress of the cake from the oven to the table." '
A rather obvious thing to do, surely?
Tom, who says he wants to become a writer, has a breezy style of his own: when he enters the deserted hall, he describes the drawing room "as empty as the Gobi Desert on one of its quieter days." When other cyanide murders follow, he comments, "I had so many questions I could have popped onto one of those radio quiz shows and felt right at home."
As before, the narrative is broken up by theological discussions between Jack and Tom, this time on the subject of life after death. Tom argues that death means that "We are annihilated .... snuffed out like a flickering flame." Jack puts the Christian case for the soul to survive and face judgement. He reassures Tom, "the Christian's immediate future is in safe, powerful hands. And his long-term future is restoration to a restored physical world in a new restored body." The real C S Lewis learnt to be less glib. After suffering the death of his wife, at one point he even wondered whether God was good or "the Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile". But all that was to happen in later years.
The Floating Body (2015)
The Floating Body is set in 1935. C S ("Jack") Lewis and his brother Warren ("Warnie") are visiting their young friend Tom Morris at Nesfield Cathedral School where Tom has now got a job as an acting teacher. Tom had suggested that Jack should be the guest speaker at the school's speech night. They become eyewitnesses to an impossible murder in which a teacher is stabbed to death by an unseen assailant, and Tom and Jack see his body fall from the rooftop, but the body doesn't hit the ground until the following day!
It is, the author explains, intended as a homage not only to C S Lewis but to Frank Richards, author of the popular Greyfriars School stories of the time. So it is full of expressions like "Yarooooh! Oh crikey! Oh crumbs!" and the school comes complete with "bounders", "the school bully", and "the school Toff". The result is not just unbelievable but plain silly, and even the narrator Tom does not seem to take it seriously. And the flippant style, though sometimes quite amusing, does not fit in comfortably with the lengthy theological digressions on such subjects as original sin. It is because of this, Lewis argues, that a murderer "is no oddity of nature, but a normal human being showing what our nature is capable of."
Although the story implausibly also involves diamond smugglers, it lacks any real sense of excitement or suspense and, despite an amusing description of the eccentric heasdmaster, only the main character, C S Lewis, holds the attention and even then there are too many references to his "mighty brain .... the size of the Albert Hall ". He certainly solves the impossible mystery even if the solution does stretch credibility rather too far, but the speech he delivers at the school speech night in which "he defended the existence of an objective moral code that applies at all times, in all places and in all cultures" seems remarkably ill suited to a schoolboy audience.
Tom, the narrator, still hopes to become a novelist and goes in for such purple patches as "the moon having faded as if it's batteries were running down, and the little illumination it provided being obscured by patches of cloud, rather like gloved fingers covering a lantern", and describes someone as the sort of person who "would howl at the full moon, eat broken glass for breakfast and devour her young." Or maybe this is just the author laughing at Tom's pretensions. But the totally unreal background makes it the least successful book in the series.
The Sinister Student (2016)
The Sinister Student is set in 1936. Clive Staples Lewis (known to all his friends as Jack) is hosting a gathering of that well-known literary group, The Inklings. Among the regulars are his brother Warnie, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neville Coghill, Hugo Dyson and Adam Fox. Two visitors are also attending: Jack's old pupil Tom Morris (who still narrates the story) and a weird undergraduate named Auberon Willesden.
The following morning Willesden is found murdered in his room in Magdalen, though both the door and the windows were locked from the inside. And not only has he been murdered: he has been beheaded and the head is missing! Who killed the student? And why? And how was it done? There is another mystery too as Jack is (improbably) suspected of cutting out pages from a valuable manuscript in the Bodleian Library!
The book gets off to a strong and interesting start with its inclusion of the (real life) Inklings who are discussing the last chapter of Tolkien's Hobbit epic, and there are amusing humorous touches. Tom has got himself a job on the Oxford Mail, and the Oxford background is convincingly described. Jack himself, despite his "intelligent, penetrating gaze", does not seem to have quite such an imposing "giant brain" as both his brother and Tom suppose, as Tom almost gets killed before Jack arrives to confront the murderer. It had been, as Jack put it, "a puzzle worthy of the collective intelligence of the Inklings."
It was Warnie who had actually identified the murder weapon. It had been beyond the power of a "primitive policeman's brain", as Tom so condescendingly puts it. One of the few policeman he approves of is Inspector Crispin who obligingly reports back to Jack on everything that the police discover as he is convinced that "at some point you'll have enough information to have an inspired idea of what happened and how it happened." He even takes Jack to see the latest severed head and lets him bring along Tolkein and Tom too as "the more Oxford brains I can engage in this mystery the better."
As always, any dramatic action is interrupted by theological discussions, this time on atonement, but they are mercifully shorter than before, although they still occur too frequently. Jack explains, "Jesus came to die. That was his mission. That was the purpose of his coming." It was " a ransom, a price paid" for human souls. And he gradually (if surprisingly) seems to be winning Tom over. Tom himself has now acquired a girlfriend of a sort who tells him he is nothing but a rabbit and calls him a "mindless buffoon". This does not sound too encouraging but Tom thinks he detects "a growing fondness" there." He really isn't too bright.
The Oxford background and the inclusion of the Inklings are of real interest, and it was starting to look as though this was the best and most convincing story in the series, when Tom suddenly fell through a hole in a wardrobe and went on to encounter a student who was a time traveller visiting from a future age to do some research! Not only is this incredibly silly and totally unconvincing, but Jack, Tolkein and Tom happily agree not to mention it to anybody (because, says Tolkein, "We know students and you strike us as a good sort")! It is all too absurd for words - but it is certainly an ingenious way of explaining how Jack was to hit upon the idea of a magic wardrobe into another world that he put to such good use in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!
However, the strange mixture of comic invention and serious theology, although certainly original, does not really work, although I am grateful to it for spurring me on to read Alister McGrath's biography of the real CS Lewis. He was so much more complex than these novels suggest.
There is an informative video interview with the author on the SPCK site.
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|The cover has an attractive nostalgic feel about it.|