Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Title: Death on the Cherwell
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay
Pages: 223
Publication Year: 1935

Plot Summary: For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behavior among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cozy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe. The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play, and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death –and the clues that point to a fellow student. This classic mystery novel, with its evocative setting in an Oxford women’s college, is now republished for the first time since the 1930s, with an introduction by the award-winning crime writer Stephen Booth.

Death on the Cherwell was my second Mavis Doriel Hay mystery, after The Santa Klaus Murders. Hay published one additional mystery, which has also been re-published by the BLCC, Murder Underground. I actually bought Murder Underground a while ago, but haven’t read it yet. I liked both Death on the Cherwell and The Santa Klaus Murders well enough that I will probably make an effort to get to it sooner rather than later.

This is a catch up review – I failed to write one up immediately after finishing the book a few weeks ago. I read it for my Detection Club bingo project, and it is mentioned in Chapter 11, Education, Education, Education, which focuses on mysteries set in boarding school/university. This one was set in the fictional Persephone College at Oxford University, which was based on Hay’s own St. Hilda’s College of Oxford University.

I liked this one fairly well and I found the Nancy Drew-esque exploits of the troupe of undergrad women doing their own shadow investigation charming. It is a lightweight book and is a very quick read. The interactions between the Scotland Yard Detective and the four undergraduates are fun. The young women are resourceful, brave and sometimes clumsy, as would be expected – Veronica Mars they are not. The book does allude to some more serious themes, but doesn’t explore those themes with a lot of energy. Overall, it was a middling golden age murder – I’ve read better, but I’ve also read worse.

In terms of mysteries set in colleges/boarding schools, Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, also published in 1935 and set in Harriet Vane’s alma mater, Shrewsbury College, itself a fictionalized version of Somerville College, her alma mater, is far superior to this one – I’m inclined to reread the 3 Harriet Vane mysteries as part of this project, as I’ve only read them once.

I also must say that I am surprised that Edwards didn’t include Cat Among the Pigeons in this chapter, as that book occurs primarily within the confines of Meadowbank, a girl’s boarding school. Miss Bulstrode, the headmistress, is one of Christie’s finest creations, sensible, spirited and entrepreneurial. Even though it isn’t specifically mentioned for that chapter, I still recommend it! It’s a later Christie, but is still a good one.

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