Murder Underground is the first of three mystery novels written by Mavis Doriel Hay in the mid-1930s. All three were reissued a few years ago by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics range, sporting introductions from crime writer Stephen Booth.
I have owned this one and Death on the Cherwell for some time but never really gave them a try. I suspect it was because some of the reviews I read, such as this one from Curtis, were not warm and when I did try Cherwell I found I couldn’t really get into it. Still, I recently decided that I wanted to fill in some gaps in my coverage of the Crime Classics range on this blog and having them to hand I figured I would give them a go.
Murder Underground begins in the aftermath of the murder of an elderly woman, Euphemia Pongleton (what a name!), who was strangled with her dog’s leash on a staircase at Belsize Park station. The dog was not with her at the time so someone who had access to the house must have been responsible, causing some concern for her family and the other boarders at the Frampton Hotel.
At first the investigation focuses on Bob Thurlow, a young man who has been walking out with her maid. We learn that she confiscated a brooch from him a few days before her death, claiming that it was stolen property and that she would decide what to do about the situation. The suspicion was that he killed her to keep her from talking to the Police yet it is pointed out that if he had killed her he would almost certainly have taken the brooch from her pockets.
Suspicion instead would seem to fall on her nephew Basil, a writer, who is expected to inherit the bulk of the estate. He seeks out legal advice from one of his aunt’s friends, confiding in him that he came across the body before it was found but fled the scene and constructed a false alibi. The story mostly follows his perspective on the case as he reacts to the police investigation and tries to shore up his alibi.
The result is a story that has a rather unusual focus. Most mystery stories tend to play out from the perspective of someone who is trying to solve the case or prove their innocence yet Basil is in a very different situation. His problems are almost entirely of his own making and borne out of his own choices, flippant attitude and careless thinking.
Some reviews comment on how he is a pretty unsympathetic figure and I can certainly see why he would irritate readers. His attitude towards his aunt’s estate seems entitled and there are points during the story where he comes off as snobbish and selfish in his interactions with others. Still, I will admit to finding him rather entertaining if you approach this story as a somewhat comedic cautionary tale rather than as a detective story.
The comedic conceit is that you have a character treating life as if he were in a light comedy when he is actually in a dark murder tale. All of his instincts are to dig himself in deeper, to further complicate his alibi and construct further layers of inadequate stories to try to cover up the uncomfortable but not criminal situation he found himself in on that staircase. He will not be responsible for his own rescue and instead we can see that he is fortunate that there are others around him who are far more aware of just how perilous his situation could be.
One of the things Curtis mentions in his review of Murder Underground is the contradiction in the tone of the material, finding the brutal murder at odds with the otherwise quite frothy and lightly comedic business around it. I think that argument reflects two ideas – firstly that Ms Euphremia Pongleton is not a ‘deserving corpse’. I can say that I probably wouldn’t like her if I met her but while she tries to exert pressure over Basil with the threat of altering her will, I think she is proud of him and wants the best for him.
The second argument is more specifically about the vicious nature of the murder method which while not described in detail is still quite disturbing to imagine. I will concede that this is a problem when you look at the book as an example of a mystery or detective novel but I think it works better if your focus is on the way Basil makes himself look guiltier and guiltier with his responses and the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in.
While this is not a detective story, there is still a mystery here for the reader to solve by the end of the book. Hay does drop clues for the reader about the case and while I am not convinced that it plays fair with the reader, I found the ending to be quite entertaining and I think the conclusion just about makes sense. I would also say that I found the cast of characters to be quite distinct and entertaining.
In spite of some of these positives, I do think that there are also several missteps and irritations. One that always irritates me is the choice to try to depict accents in the text. This is a difficult thing to do and almost never done well.
The other is that the active characters really have very little to do with establishing the outcome for the novel’s conclusion making them seem a little passive. Now, as I indicated earlier, I do think that fits the themes I believe Hay is developing but I don’t think it works dramatically, nor are the laughs quite big enough to say it really works comically either.
To me Murder Underground is ultimately a rather awkward read. At its best there are great positives such as the lively characterization and effective communications of ideas are certainly there and to be appreciated but I think if it wanted to be a comedy it should have pushed those elements a little more. Instead it feels like a messy jumble, mixing the dramatic and the comedic but never quite successfully marinating them together. The British Library have reissued some other lighthearted mysteries that I think are altogether more effective and I would suggest that you start with those before tackling this story.
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