When Colin Revell receives a letter from his alma mater seeking his advice on the untimely death of a current student, he jumps at the chance to help. Colin arrives at Oakschott and is warmly welcomed by both the Headmaster, Mr. Roseveare, and one of the teachers, an intriguing and beguiling man named Max Lambourne. Unfortunately for Colin, the curious events that left a student dead happened too long ago for him to be of much help. Yet not long after Colin returns home to London, another murder occurs at Oakschott and the victim is connected to the first. Colin rushes back to the school where he develops a close relationship with Max as they act on their mutual attraction, as well as their interest in the intriguing murders.
This time, Colin is not working alone. The Scotland Yard has sent a detective down to investigate. Yet even with law enforcement present, another murder takes place—one that hits dangerously close to Colin. As the days turn into weeks, it’s clear the trail of the murderer is growing ever colder and nothing short of an attempt on Colin’s own life is enough to stir him to action.
In this story, author Jim Austen “mashes up” a 1930s murder mystery book by James Hilton with his own steamy m/m romance. To make the romance work, Austen had to significantly tweak how Max fit into the original story. While Max has precious little on-page time here, the passionate affair he shares with Colin is equal parts sheer lust and emotional bonding. When tragedy strikes the smitten couple, Colin is forced to forego Max’s help on the strange murders at Oakschott. When all the details about the killer and how the murders were committed are revealed, the reader can then appreciate Austen’s attention to detail as he re-worked the original story to accommodate Colin and Max’s relationship in this version.
The relationship between Colin and Max starts of in a manner that I found rather, well, artless. Max, who suffers from PTSD after serving in the army during WWI, is triggered by a thunderstorm; Colin finds him and valiantly decides to comfort Max. About 30 seconds later, they’re fucking like it’s going out of style. The transition wasn’t just abrupt, it felt a bit disingenuous. Colin has absolutely no idea if Max is even attracted to men—let alone Max’s vulnerability. The two can’t get enough of each other from there on out.
The thriller aspect of Murder at Oakschott Hall and Austen’s changes to accommodate a happy ending kept me guessing. I spent the first half of the book wondering why Colin never suspected a character who seemed suspicious to me. Then, tragedy descends upon Colin and Max and my attention was refocused on what happens in their love affair, so the identity of the murderer took the back seat. And by the time I was reasonably confident of the real guilty party, I was desperate to figure out if there was any way for Colin and Max to find their happy ending. Once the murderer is apprehended, I was on the edge of my seat as the Scotland Yard detective comes back into the picture to fill in the blanks for Colin (and the reader).
As much as I enjoyed the “mash-up” story, I feel compelled to point out that Austen seems to have left Hilton’s original work largely intact. In addition to the character names, period-specific language, and place descriptions, much of the prose itself in Austen’s version is identical to the 1931 book. Obviously, anything overtly sexual has been added—and perhaps to the detriment of Colin, who I felt came off as rather overly sexualized and insincere until he meets Max (and Colin’s depth of feeling for Max still doesn’t stop him from engaging with another willing man during this story). Based on this, this book reads more like fanfiction or “how it should have ended” rather than a genuine mash-up.