Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Death on The Cherwell - Mavis Doriel Hay

I was tempted to title this review The Four Marys Find a Body. Our young sleuths - girls in their first year at Persephone College, Oxford - are very much of that mould. Cheery young chapesses who find the body of their dead bursar floating down the river in a canoe and field it into shore and try to revive her. 

Sadly, and despite all having their girl guide badges for reviving dead bursars, they fail, so they decide to form a league to find out who killed her instead. 

I'm being mean. I actually enjoyed this book, and in some ways it's refreshing to see this age group portrayed as naïve – because in real life many teenagers still are, and it’s a thing that you rarely see in books (often even quite young teens are portrayed as all too knowing, if not actively corrupted).

But I don't think they were ever as naïve as all this, were they? Not to the point that they only remember about fingerprints after they've removed and manhandled a possible piece of evidence, and decide to hide in the grounds and spy through the window of the man they consider the main suspect by standing on a stack of flowerpots (I mean really, flowerpots? What could possibly go wrong there?).

Also it never seems to cross the girls’ minds that possibly the male student friend of their fellow scholar could have been in their grounds late at night for *coughs discreetly* reasons that are if not innocent then at least not criminal. Perhaps I grew up in a more wicked age but my mind immediately went to the gutter, and I bet it’s where the Dean’s mind would have gone too. 

The book is one of the reprints under the British Library Crime Classics label and much as I enjoyed it I still think it deserved rediscovery more for historical interest than as a murder mystery. The investigations are fairly absurd on the amateur side and not very interesting on the police side, but the point and place in time is key: the 30s in Oxford, where the women’s colleges are clearly there to stay and the younger generation (of both sexes) take the ‘new’ status quo very much for granted; but also where one character can still say of Cambridge 'why would you want to go somewhere that won’t give you a degree.’

Inevitably, given where and when it is set comparisons are bound to be made with Sayer’s Gaudy Night (which came out in the same year), but in fact there are very few points in common. Both Sayers and Hay pick up (and are understandably irritated by) the way the newspapers describe what they call ‘graduettes’, but Sayers is firmly not from the POV of the students, far more occupied with gender and learning, and much darker. 

This is more of a girl’s own adventure tale, less accomplished and lighter in tone. The setup actually quite original, the characters consistent, and nothing jarringly wrong in the writing. But very, very light, and you can see why the one is still in print more than 80 years later and this (until now) hasn’t been. If it were contemporary it might sell very nicely, make a film (in fact it would make quite a good film with editing) and then be forgotten in a few years, which is presumably exactly what happened in 1931.

Photo taken by the Cherwell, facing Christ Church, Oxford

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