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.

Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie

Title: Lord Edgware Dies (Hercule Poirot #9)
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 352
Publication year: 1933

Plot summary: Poirot had been present when Jane bragged of her plan to ‘get rid of’ her estranged husband. Now the monstrous man was dead. And yet the great Belgian detective couldn’t help feeling that he was being taken for a ride.

After all, how could Jane have stabbed Lord Edgware to death in his library at exactly the same time she was seen dining with friends? And what could be her motive now that the aristocrat had finally granted her a divorce?

Every blog has a first post, and it seems fitting that this one start with a post about a book written by Agatha Christie, since I’ve spent years in the process of reading everything by her.

Back in 2015, I spent the better part of six months reading her entire Poirot canon. I realized several things through this process, the most important of which was that I still love the hell out of Agatha Christie. I’ve never been as partial to her Marple books, and not all of her Poirot mysteries can fairly be quantified as great, but for the most part, even the mediocre Christie is a fantastically entertaining read.

Let me briefly digress to talk about spoilers. I will not intentionally spoil the solution here, although it is possible that my discussion may inadvertently reveal plot points. I will also work hard to avoid gendering a role – which is why, when I say murderer/ess, it means nothing more than that I’m trying not to reveal if the murderer is male or female.

Lord Edgware Dies is not my favorite Poirot – not by a long shot. The solution isn’t particularly ingenious, although I do think that Agatha did a good job with an illustration of an utterly vapid and sociopathic mind. It’s always easier to zero in on the clues one the second, or even third, reading, once I know who the killer actually is. In this one, Christie sprinkles the clues throughout the book, and even gives us a listing, by Poirot, late in the book, of the five questions he needs to answer in order to put the solution together.

I selected this one for a reread because I was working on the subgenre of London murders, which is Chapter 8 of the Martin Edwards The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, a book which I will probably reference frequently. Lord Edware Dies is one of Christie’s London stories, and does a good job of evoking life in London in the 1930’s among the theater set. Most of my impressions of England during the interwar period come from literature, especially the mysteries written by Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Georgette Heyer, so I have no idea how accurate they are.

A word about the BBC adaptation: The David Suchet adaptations are, on the whole, quite good and this was no exception to that rule. The actor who played Donald Ross overdid the Scottish accent a bit, and I wasn’t crazy about the actress who was chosen to play Jane Wilkinson, but the adaptation is faithful to the book, and Suchet is wonderful. It’s one of the later Hastings books, where he has returned from Argentina after some difficulties with his wife, and it’s always nice to see Hugh Fraser playing the genial sidekick. This is one of his last outings, sadly.