Monday, 16 February 2015

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

I have been extremely pleased to see the success of the British Library Crime Classics, but although I've cheered them on from a distance, and bought one of the John Budes, it's only now that I've actually read one of the series. And it isn't the John Bude; it is one they kindly gave me: Death on the Cherwell (1935) by Mavis Doriel Hay.

This is extremely apt for me, since it is set in Oxford - the Cherwell (pronounced char-well, please) is part of the Thames - and I know the places Hay describes. The setting is largely the environs of the non-existent Persephone College, a women-only Oxford college. A handy map in the front shows where this college supposedly stands - a small park by the river that, incidentally, remains building-free, and would be a very foolish place to build anything you didn't want to have annually flooded. But, according to Stephen Booth's introduction, it's based on St. Hilda's - which Hay attended as a student, but before women were awarded degrees.

A group of undergraduates, or 'undergraduettes' as the papers apparently label them, are in the process of setting up the Lode League ('the formation of esoteric societies is one of the favourite pastimes of undergraduates'), sat on the corrugated iron roof of a small boathouse, when a mysterious canoe floats by... In it is the body of the bursar, Miss Myra Denning, an unpopular woman whose unpopularity was, indeed, the very genesis of the Lode League.

This League is composed of Daphne, Gwyneth, Nina, and Sally. In truth, I found these young women more or less interchangeable - one was supposed to be wiser than the others, one more impetuous, and so forth, but any of them could fairly easily have said any of the dialogue. It didn't much matter. What matters rather more is the fun that Hay throws us into.

As I wrote recently in my post on A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery, detective novels that aren't written by Agatha Christie inevitably suffer by comparison, when it comes to plot. (I'm not going to risk mentioning Dorothy L. Sayers again, even though there are striking similarities in scenario to Gaudy Night, published in the same year. I'd better not say what I thought of Gaudy Night.) And the plot of Death on the Cherwell isn't filled with the sorts of twists, turns, and surprises that Christie would have found - it ends up being one of the people you suspected it would be all along, for fairly undisguised reasons - but, that acknowledged, this novel is great fun and very well told.

Hay is great at crafting an engaging narrative. Whenever it palls a bit, we get a new character - a vivacious and witty couple who apparently appeared in Hay's Murder Underground make a reappearance, driving madly around Oxford and staying at the Mitre (which was apparently once rather classy; how things have changed). Then there is Draga, the 'Yugo-Slavian' student who lives in constant surprise at the English and equally constant poor grammar. She is in every way a stereotype of the Eastern European student, but perhaps we should expect no better from the 1930s - and she is certainly not intended as an offensive portrait. She is vibrant and amusing, and certainly stands out from the other student characters.

Although sold as an amateur detectives premise, there are a couple of police officers involved. Both, luckily, are extremely willing to share details of their investigations with the central characters, and they more or less work in tandem.

I wasn't quite fair when I said there weren't twists and turns. There are, just not particularly in the denouement - along the way, we get curses and secrets and all that sort of thing. There isn't a dull moment, and it's all (I keep coming back to this) very fun. Like The Red House Mystery, it's definitely cosy crime - with the added bonus of offering a window into a women's college in the 1930s. It's a delight, and if the rest of the British Library Crime Classics are of an equal tone and standard, then I can't wait to dive in and explore.

20 comments:

  1. Sounds great. I really want to read more of these British Library Crime classics -I read Mystery in White at Christmas. I may have to try the library as I'm not allowed to buy books at the moment.

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    1. Mystery in White is one that really appealed, but now I feel like I should wait til next Christmas... or even snow...

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  2. It's definitely fun, Simon - I'd agree with you there. Unfortunately I guessed the denouement and its twist pretty early on - plus I'm a great lover of "Gaudy Night" so I guess that rather coloured my attitude to the book..... :)

    kaggsysbookishramblings

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    1. There was barely even a twist, given how non-shocking it was...

      Karen, I am trying so hard to be good about Gaudy Night!

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  3. I have read the first 60 pages of this and am REALLY struggling with it - my main problem being (as you have touched on) that the characters are largely interchangeable (and therefore very difficult to keep apart in my head!). Maybe I'll give it one more go.

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    1. I decided early on that I didn't care who was saying what, and just to ignore how similar they were!! Perhaps I should have tried harder to disentangle them, but went for ploughing on instead - and it was fun after that :)

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  4. I enjoyed this, it wasn't brilliant but it was, as you say, fun. There really is no other way to describe it. It was also interesting to compare to Sayers. I really liked the end, nothing to sensational which made a nice change.

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    1. True! It was a very believable ending, which is certainly better than a series of unlikely coincidences and reveals.

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  5. I have a bunch of these on my wish list and am looking forward to them. There are times when fun, cozy mystery is the best reading.

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    1. There absolutely are! George Orwell was right :)

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  6. I'm surprised to hear the Mitre is no longer classy. It seems to be mentioned in every second 20th century Oxford related book as the place where everyone stays or at least meets for lunch. So I naturally assumed that by now it would be uber expensive and uber chic, cashing in on its literary and historic fame.

    I never went there myself. I spent a week in Oxford in 1973, and we enjoyed the Lamb and Flag.

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    1. I can't vouch for the state of the rooms, but the food is pretty appalling now... it's run by a cheap pub chain, and the food is mediocre-to-unpleasant (and I am far from a food snob). But it's a nice place to go for a drink.

      The Lamb and Flag is also run by a cheap pub chain now - potentially the same one - and also a place where eating isn't advised....

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  7. Draga - is that not the name Angela Thirkell used for her Mixo-Lydian refugee turned housemaid who ends up being an ambassador?

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    1. Oh, really?! I have read too few ATs to know...

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  8. Have to say I wa not madly keen on this. Cannot help but feel you are wise to keep your opinion of Gaudy Night to yourself Simon!!!!!

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    1. But grateful to have read the book! ;)

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  9. I enjoyed DOTC. As you say, it's fun rather than diabolically cunning but I did love the college being called Persephone. Gaudy Night is one of my favourite books (I reread it again just last month) as you know, so I'll say no more! I've enjoyed all the BLCCs I've read so far & I have quite a few more on the shelves.

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    1. I did like the name of the college, unsurprisingly!

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  10. I actually like Gaudy Night, so watch out what you say about it! I do like the setting and the period piece quaintness of this one (like you, when in England, I live on the River Thames not that far away from Oxford, so I have a weakness for that setting).

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    1. I've been very careful ;) One day I will rant about Peter W, but I'm getting the sense that my audience will not appreciate it (!!!)

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