First published: UK, Collins, 1938; US, Macmillan, 1939
Nothing speaks more about the English detective story’s avoidance of excessive detail (so beloved of the depraved contemporary writer) than its treatment of gore. Here, the severed head found in a student’s room is treated in as light-hearted a manner as the obligatory eccentricities of the dons. Thus we have humour instead of horror. Unfortunately the plot is as light as the style. The action is diffuse; the plot full of holes (Why send the package containing the head? What purpose does the car accident at the beginning serve?) and inconsistent (although the crime was committed on Monday night and the bulk of the action takes place on Wednesday, the detectives inquire into the events of Tuesday night); and the reader has little chance of spotting the murderer. For that matter, neither does the detective, young Insp. Fairford, who relies on a murderous attack on his beloved committed in broad daylight.
A well-known “don” run down by a car in Oxford High Street—just afterwards, the head of a young woman found in the room of an undergraduate—on the wall of the same room, a caricature of the dead woman sitting on the knee of one of the College tutors—a small boy flinging a cricket ball through a window and so discovering the rest of the body. The Yard is called upon in the person of Inspector Fairford, whom the Coles’ readers have met before in The Brothers Sackville; and there is an amateur detective, Ann Maitland, to compete and to co-operate with the police. In short, a crime story set against the background of University life, with a wealth of “characters” and suspects, and an exciting chase at the end.
Until the discovery one morning of the woman’s head, the city of Oxford had been wrapt in its usual calm—earnest, academic, and primly aware of its ancient cloisters and gray old dignity. Now it was in confusion. On the morning in question, a certain seedy gentleman by the name of Richard Paltock, fellow and tutor of St. Simon’s College, was run over while crossing High Street and taken to the hospital in a serious condition. At about the same time, the bursar of St. Simon’s, in the act of inspecting the empty rooms of a student who had been sent down for a term, found in a biscuit tin the head of a woman—a head with fair hair, thin eyebrows and heavily reddened lips.
So began one of the most terrifying affairs in the history of Oxford. More than one sleuth was at work on the solution: there was first the young detective from London, Inspector Tom Fairford; he became uncomfortably aware of Ann Maitland, the Master’s niece, recently launched on a journalistic career and determined to investigate the murder, at the risk of Tom’s nerves and her own life; finally, there was the Master of St. Simon’s himself, a vintage character with a good deal of shrewd sense beneath his ancient exterior. It was up to these three to find the missing student, the woman’s body, and—the murderer.
The Coles, those maestros of detective fiction, have collaborated here on a gay, fast-moving tale with a well-nigh perfect stage-set—terror and destruction within the quiet Gothic walls of Oxford.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 4th December 1938):
CHOOSE YOUR VICTIM
I must confess to a slight prejudice against the Coles’ detective stories. They give me the feeling that they are written on a walking tour to the accompaniment of snatches from the “Student’s Song Book”. I regret their determination to be jolly and undonnish at all costs, to throw the finer points of construction to the winds that scatter paper bags all over Land’s End during the Long Vacation. But Off With Her Head is much the best, and also the least aggressively wholesome Cole that I have yet read. It has the advantage of an academic setting and a splendid choice of victim. Nesta, whose severed head is discovered in the empty rooms of a sent-down undergraduate who had decorated his walls with scandalous frescoes, was a typical Proctor’s bane, a university gold-digger, Lounge-Lorelei, and cocktail party cockatrice. She had a shady partner—book-maker and moneylender—who used her as a decoy, and a collapsible husband—unsuccessful night-club proprietor. Very probable, very satisfactory. So are the reactions of the college as a whole, the light relief provided by the Master’s faintly epicene garrulity, and the discovery of the body by two small boys. The first half, indeed, goes with such a swing that it carries you right on to the end, past a sudden eruption of Colesomeness in the form of a one-kiss-and-they’re-engaged love affair between Scotland Yard and the Master’s journalist niece, past a scandalously false, false trail to a rather lame solution. Much as I enjoyed Off With Her Head, I cannot refrain from reminding the Coles of Lord Chesterfield’s celebrated piece of therapeutic advice.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 10th December 1938):
Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s new story Off with Her Head is disappointing for two reasons: first, it falls below their own standard, and secondly a mystery set in Oxford and written by a Fellow of University College and his wife raises hopes which are not realised. The head of a notorious lady is discovered in a parcel in an undergraduate’s room, but there is soon reason to believe that it was addressed to one of the dons. Scotland Yard intervenes in the person of Inspector Fairford, who acquires a perfunctory love affair in the course of his researches. The murder is clearly a sex crime, but one becomes fairly indifferent as to who is the murderer among a limited and nasty group of suspects. The only decisive contributor to a genuine Oxford atmosphere is the Master of the College concerned, a verbose and liberal-minded gentleman who is not unnaturally taken aback by his cavalier treatment by the detective. Inspector Fairford’s abilities either as a detective or a suitor scarcely justify his poor manners.
Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 30th December 1938):
The Coles open smartly with the discovery of a woman’s head in a biscuit-tin in an Oxford undergraduate’s room. The lady, it transpires, comes from Cambridge, but no significance need be attached to this. She is a hard case, and everything about her death and its investigation is pretty hard-boiled: even the master of St. Simon’s himself, otherwise a humane and charming man, receives the gruesome discovery in his college with singular equanimity; one wonders, indeed, that he did not charge the murderer a decapitation fee.
The Times (3rd January 1939):
The Coles are in the fashion for more full-blooded crime [than Mr. Ernest F. Charles’s Before the Wind]. Off with her Head! opens magnificently with the discovery of a woman’s head in a parcel delivered to a set of rooms in St. Simon’s College, Oxford. The undergraduate occupant has been sent down, but on the wall is a caricature of the murdered woman embracing one of the College tutors. Inspector Fairford of the Yard has the case in hand and soon the headless body of the lady is discovered. As can be expected, there is excellent characterisation in this book—the Master, for one, is a delightful individual—but the discovery of the criminal is left more to chance than to the efforts of the C.I.D. man, who is hindered (and helped) by an unexpected love affair with the Master’s journalist-niece.
Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 13th January 1939):
According to mood and temperament, readers will feel that the calm, academic atmosphere of Oxford, so well described by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole in their new book, Off With Her Head, and the thumbnail sketches of college dignitaries, undergraduates, and employees either enhance or make appear incongruous and unacceptable the sensational beginning of the story, describing the delivery to a college tutor of a severed human head in a box. Inspector Fairford is called in, though whether he would have discovered the truth without the help given him by Ann Maitland seems more than doubtful. In fact, he finds her both so charming and so useful that it is little wonder he falls in love and mingles the investigation with kisses that lead to an engagement. Some may prefer the Coles in a less violent mood than that of severed heads packed in biscuit tins, but the university background is always amusing, the story is carefully worked out, and the characterisation is uniformly good, every one of the numerous figures being well and clearly drawn.
Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 13th May 1939, 130w):
The romance is not too obtrusive to be disturbing, and the individuals of the town are so carefully characterised that each member of the crowded cast is distinct. On the whole, a thoroughly satisfying murder.
Books (Will Cuppy, 14th May 1939, 420w):
Recommended largely for its perfect background. Now let’s have more murders at Oxford.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 14th May 1939, 170w):
The story is in the best Cole manner, especially in the beginning. There is a slight let-down toward the end, but not enough of one to matter very much.
Sat R of Lit (20th May 1939, 40w):
There being not much doubt about killer’s identity, one turns to atmosphere and background—and both prospects are pleasing. Minor Cole.