JOHN PENN – Mortal Term. Bantam, US, paperback, September 1986. First published in the US by Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, April 1985. Previously published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1984.

    “John Penn” was the joint pen name of Paula Harcourt and John H. Trotman. Under this byline they wrote some 20 mysteries: two stand-alones, then six with Inspector George Thorne before they switched to 12 with Chief Inspector Dick Tansey. This one is second of the Thorne books.

    This one barely passed the 50 page test (some don’t pass the 10 pages test), but although the crime seemed very minor, Penn seemed to have a good grasp of the characters they were writing about, so I kept reading, thinking that with characters that had kept me reading this far would eventually work themselves into a more serious situation — murder, presumably — in which character would be as important to the solution as the clues.

    It’s hard to say whether that’s true or not, and I shall attempt to explain why. It’s the headmaster of a British coed boarding school who’s in trouble throughout this one. In Part One, he’s caught (seemingly) trying to molest a young girl he picked up hitchhiking along the road. Part Two consists of all kinds of things that had gone wrong during the previous school term: his new wife accidentally kills a young boy in a motor accident; two older boys apparently give a younger one some pot that made him very ill; and a young girl tries to rid herself of a pregnancy she doesn’t want anyone to know about.

    Part Three is where Inspector Thorne finally makes an appearance, 96 pages into the book, just over half way through. Strangely enough it’s the case of child molestation he’s been given, but eventually murder is indeed done. Aha, at last, I thought.

    Alas, there is neither good detective work done, nor even fair play. All the good characterization in the world will not make up for Thorne stating as fact on page 175 something that was never even hinted at before. Pfui. Not a complete waste of time but almost.