While Dartmouth has had its share of real murders, this particular Dartmouth Murders, is the title of a work of fiction, possibly the first work of murder mystery fiction to feature the College, at least in book form. The story was perpetrated by Clifford Orr, Class of 1922, who would have lived through a real murder at the College in his sophomore year, but that’s a different story!
Clifford’s fictional murder is nothing like the real one. Instead it starts with the main character, Kenneth Harris, finding the body of his roommate hanging by his neck from the fire escape (in those days the fire escape was a rope that student would have to shimmy down in the event of a blaze). What appears at first to be a suicide quickly turns more sinister.
Orr first published the piece in serial form in College Humor under the title "The Dartmouth Mystery," though there is little if any humor in his piece. The story was then picked up by Farrar and Rinehart in the company’s inaugural year (1929) and made into a book. While Orr went on to publish another mystery with them, The Wailing Rock Murders, his final book, allegedly set on the Cornell campus, never made it into print. The Dartmouth Murders was made into a movie in 1935, titled A Shot in the Dark. The New York Times panned the movie version for which Orr wrote the script.
The Dartmouth Murders is full of familiar Dartmouth locations and references. For instance Kenneth Harris is a resident of North Mass, just as Clifford Orr was as a student. But when the clock strikes the hour it is not the Baker Tower clock as it would be today, but the Dartmouth Hall clock (Baker hadn’t been built when Orr was a student). Webster Hall, the Chapel and the Inn also get at least passing mention. Hanover establishments of yore also make appearances, The Dartmouth National Bank and Campion’s for instance, but ultimately the book is more about the mystery and Dartmouth is very much a backdrop.
Orr, who started out as a literary associate at Doubleday, Dorn & Co., and later became a literary editor at The New Yorker, also published some short literary pieces in The New Yorker and wrote song lyrics. He died in Hanover in 1951 after “a long illness” at the age of 51.
To read The Dartmouth Murders, ask for: DC History, PZ3.O749 Dar or Rauner Alumni O75d
To see the College Humor version of the story ask for: DC History PZ3 .O749da
To see Orr’s papers and the manuscript version of the novel, ask for: MS-532
To watch A Shot in the Dark, go to Jones Media Center and ask for: Jones Media DVD 8519