James Hilton (1900 – 1954)

220px-James_Hilton_7James Hilton (9 September 1900 – 20 December 1954) was an English novelist best remembered for several best-sellers, including Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. He also wrote Hollywood screenplays. Born in Leigh, Lancashire, England, Hilton was the son of John Hilton, the headmaster of Chapel End School in Walthamstow, who was one of the inspirations for Mr Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The setting for Goodbye, Mr. Chips is believed to have been based on the Leys School, Cambridge where James Hilton was a pupil. Mr Chipping is also likely to have been based on W.H. Balgarnie, one of the masters of the school who was in charge of the Leys Fortnightly (where Hilton’s first short stories and essays were published).

Hilton found literary success at an early age. His first novel, Catherine Herself, was published in 1920. Several of his books found a new audience through film adaptations, notably Lost Horizon (1933), which won a Hawthornden Prize; Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934); and Random Harvest (1941). Hilton won an Oscar in 1942 for his work on the screenplay of Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther. He hosted The Hallmark Playhouse (1948-1953) for CBS Radio.

By 1938 he had moved to California, and his work became more connected with the Hollywood film industry. While he was in California Hilton was also host of one of radio’s prestige drama anthologies, Hallmark Playhouse, from 1948 to 1952. He married Alice Brown, a secretary at the BBC, just before they left for the United States in 1935, but they divorced in 1937. He then married Galina Kopernak, but they divorced eight years later. He became an American citizen in 1948. A heavy smoker, Hilton had various health problems when he made a farewell visit to England in 1954, and in December he died at his home in Long Beach, California, from liver cancer on December 20, 1954, aged 54, with his reconciled former wife Alice at his side. His obituary in The Times describes him as “a modest and retiring man for all his success; he was a keen mountaineer and enjoyed music and travel. (Source: Golden Age of Detection Wiki from Wikipedia)

To be frank, I hesitated to post this entry about James Hilton’s  (aka Glen Trevor) book had it not been included in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017) by Martin Edwards. Later, I learned of its inclusion in Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone List of essential mystery works. And, finally, I encountered it is readily available in e-book format (Reading Essentials, 2020). But anyway I’m not in any hurry to read it, but I though it might be of some interest to other readers.

Murder at School is a detective novel by James Hilton first published in 1931 under the pseudonym Glen Trevor. It was released in the United States the following year under the title, Was It Murder? In fact it was Hilton’s only mystery novel, although he also published some mystery short stories: “The King of the Bats” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March 1953); “The Mallet” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September 1942; rpt. in To The Queen’s Taste, ed. Ellery Queen, 1946); and “The Perfect Plan” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March 1946).


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Ernest Benn Limited (UK), 1931)

Was It Murder? (1931) (a. k. a. Murder at School) by James Hilton (as by Glen Trevor) Dover Books (1979)

England expects,” replied Revell, lightly purloining some one else’s epigram, “that every young man some day will write a novel.” — from Was It Murder?

‘Just as young T. H. White wrote one forgotten detective novel before achieving fame as a writer, James Hilton, prior to Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, pseudonymously authored a finely crafted but critically neglected detective mystery, which remained obscure even at the apex of Hilton’s renown. Many Hilton readers are unaware of the existence of Was It Murder?; most have never seen the long out-of-print edition published under the pen-name Glen Trevor.

‘Was It Murder? (English title Murder at School), like Goodbye, Mr. Chips, takes place in that most traditional and confounding of English settings, the public school. Colin Revell, impudent Oxonian and sometime sleuth, returns to his alma mater Oakington to puzzle over a schoolboy’s “accidental” death. The accidents multiply in frequency and horror as Colin idly pokes about the Gothic quads, and the tightly modulated suspense ripens with a generous foretaste of Hilton’s later acclaimed talent: finely perceived, individual characters (Dr. Roseveare, the School Head; Lambourne, the neurasthenic master; the flirtatious Mrs. Ellington and Scotland Yard’s imperturbable Detective Guthrie); overwhelming atmosphere, and full complement of adventure and romance.

‘As with T. H. White, Hilton’s sole exercise in the detective genre stands out in style and authentic background. But while Hilton went on to the dazzling peaks of Shangri-la, Was It Murder? lay buried under the indifference accorded to most youthful efforts. Only now, in this first edition in many decades, can James Hilton’s distinctive touch be enjoyed in a thoroughly English thriller.’ (Source: Blurbs for James Hilton Mysteries)

Murder at School / Was It Murder? has been reviewed, among others, at Golden Age of Detection Wiki, Tipping My Fedora and Cross-Examining Crime.

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