September 26, 2006
This is a quite amusing, moderately ingenious, reasonably pleasing collection of fifteen short stories set in Oxford. There’s nothing here to set the world on fire or stir the soul, but there is much to enjoy in a tranquil manner in this slender volume. The best of the stories is the title one, 'The Sixpenny Debt' by Jane Stemp, which combines a sympathetic and engaging hero with an intriguing historical setting, and has a satisfying heart and depth. In this story the plot and the characters outweigh the interest of the setting, and move through the Oxford of the Commonwealth confidently and with no trace of the arch self-consciousness that mars some of the other stories. Six of the stories are preoccupied with murder – always, interestingly, from the point of view of the murderer – of which the best is the delightful 'Word Games' by Mary Cavanagh, where Oxford is incidental to the story. Three have historical settings, and two are fantastical, in particular the frankly bizarre 'The Tortoises of Turl Street' by Linora Lawrence. They range from the misty woods at Wytham to the grimy terraces of East Oxford, via the tow-path. Surprisingly few deal with the University or its members, though Charles Dodgson makes an appearance in the beautifully restrained and richly suggestive 'Cross Purposes' by Lorna Pearson. Several of the stories have a slightly self-congratulatory tone and rely on their readers’ familiarity with the works of other writers, making references for the clever to pick up. They come over as cosily cliquey, and are of a muchness, as if all the writers went on the same creative writing course and regularly meet for coffee. But there are enough gems in there to make it a worthwhile addition to the library of the smallest room, and at least three writers I would like to read more of.