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.