British Library Crime Classics, 2014
originally published 1935
This past July I read my first book by Mavis Doriel Hay, who wrote only three crime novels during her short stint as mystery writer. I have yet to read her The Santa Klaus Murders, the last of her mystery novels, which is still sitting patiently on its shelf waiting for me to pick it up. And while I wasn't a huge fan of her Murder Underground, I was really into Death on the Cherwell, which was not only fun, but also a story that turned out to be a good mystery with a number of red herrings and many possible suspects. I got it for Christmas this year and as it turned out, it was just the ticket for brain calming after having read more than one too-serious novel over the holidays.
If you look at readers' thoughts on this book, more than one person has actually compared this book to a Nancy Drew story. The truth is though that the only similarity between Death on the Cherwell and Nancy Drew is that a group of young women friends do a bit of sleuthing after a murder -- Voilà,, c'est tout. The comparison is just not right. In fact, in a very un-Nancy Drew sort of way, the book begins with four undergrad girls attending Persephone College, Oxford, holding a secret meeting on the roof of a nearby boat house. They've decided to form their own secret society, the Lode League, the purpose of which is to curse the bursar, the not-much liked Miss Denning. Just as the group rings are being passed out, along comes what looks to be an empty canoe. The girls rush to bring it to shore and discover that the canoe is not only not empty, but that it's carrying the body of the very person they formed their League to curse. Evidently she'd drowned, but as one of the girls, Sally, asks
"How can anyone drown in a canoe?"Very good question, actually, and one that brings in Scotland Yard to investigate. In the meantime, though, Miss Cordell, Principal of Persephone College, just dreads the publicity that this death is going to bring to the school -- publicity, as we're told, is her "bugbear:"
"Respectable publicity was bad enough, because newspaper reporters, however carefully instructed, were liable to to break out into some idiocy about 'undergraduettes' or 'academic caps coquettishly set on golden curls'. But shameful publicity! A death mystery! That was terrible!"Later, after having been initially questioned by the police, Sally realizes that "There'll be an awful tamasha about this," and decides that the girls should do all they can to "help try to clear up the mystery." They need to discover the truth about things, "to find it out so that Persephone doesn't look silly." That's not the only reason that the girls decide to get involved -- their fellow student Draga, a "Yugo-Slav," had already made her feelings about Miss Denning known after the bursar had, as Draga puts it, insulted her. The girls are concerned that if Draga somehow got brought into the investigation, they may have to "cover her tracks," since outsiders don't understand her Yugo-slav temperament. It's a fun little mystery story, and while my choice of suspect turned out to be the killer, it took me a while to figure it out since there are a variety of people with motives to knock off Miss Denning.
Careful readers will note a wide strand of misogyny running throughout this mystery novel. At one point, for example, a few of the guy pals of our female amateur sleuths are talking, with the main question being that of why "most women get murdered." The answer for one of them is that "Some wretched man gets involved with too many of them and has to remove one or two." Hmmm. Then, of course, there's one suspect whose family has a long, long history of hating women, and as just one final example (although there are many), is that we are told in no uncertain terms that Cambridge in the 1930s has yet to offer real degrees for women students.
It's a good read, very easy to get through, and I had a much better time with this book than I did with the author's first novel. Even though Hay reprises a couple of characters from Murder Underground, Betty (Sally's sister) and her husband Cyril, thankfully Cyril's not the same twit here that was he was in that one. About the only spot where this book starts to get boggy is while the Inspector takes his time to try to pinpoint alibis for all and sundry, but otherwise it flows very nicely. There are even a few comedic spots that brought out a chuckle or two, my favorite centering on the girls' secret late-night surveillance of a property belonging to one of the suspects. But there's some serious stuff here as well, starting as the book comes down to the big reveal. Nancy Drew it is definitely NOT and while people are certainly entitled to their opinions, well, that's a bit wide of the mark.
Do not miss Stephen Booth's excellent introduction (but do save it for last) which puts a nice perspective on Hay's work and that of Dorothy Sayer, whose Gaudy Night was also placed in an academic setting. While Hay's book isn't quite up to the Gaudy Night level of excellence (my personal favorite of Sayers' Lord Peter books), it's still quite fun and a great way to pass a quiet day. People into vintage crime, those who are following the British Library Crime Classics series, or those who are exploring the work of interwar women mystery writers will definitely find a good book here; it may also work well for cozy readers. Plus, I love the cover art -- just love it!!
crime fiction from the UK