Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death on the Cherwell
Mavis Doriel Hay
Originally Published 1935

Death on the Cherwell was the second of three mystery novels written by Mavis Doriel Hay in the mid-1930s, all of which were reprinted a few years ago as part of the British Library Crime Classics range.

I previously read and reviewed Murder Underground, the first of her novels but found it to be a frustrating read in the way it blended (or rather, failed to blend) its comical and mystery elements into a plot. Still, I owned Death on the Cherwell already and felt that it was worth giving the book and the author another chance to impress.

The novel opens with four students gathering on top of a building to discuss their shared loathing of their college’s bursar, Ms. Denning. They form a secret society where they can share their complaints and frustrations about her. As they talk they notice a canoe drifting down river and the very person they were talking about lies dead inside having drowned. The problem is that if she drowned as a result of an accident how did she come to get back in the boat?

As introductions for murder victims go, having your corpse drift slowly down a river is fairly memorable while also serving to reinforce that university setting. At the same time, the situation is genuinely mystifying, in part because the manner of discovery is so suggestive of murder when you consider that were the body not in the boat the assumption would have been accidental drowning.

The four girls decide to play sleuth and start looking into the death on their own, inspired by the exploits of one of their cousins. Now, when I had read Hay’s previous novel, Murder Underground, I had assumed that it was a one-off novel so I was surprised to discover that two characters from that novel make extended “guest” appearances here. I can only assume that Hay intended to create a Marvel-like Pongleton Extended Universe with Betty and Basil serving as Nick Fury and Agent Coulson-type characters…

The tone of the investigation, much like that previous novel, is often quite comical. Betty and Basil do end up making pretty significant contributions to the story and contribute a light and breezy tone to the proceedings. While I felt this often worked against the premise of Murder Underground, coming off as callous given the characters’ relationships to the deceased, here it fits much better. Indeed I found myself wishing that more time was spent following their somewhat amateurish efforts rather than the somewhat drab and lifeless police investigation portion of the narrative.

This procedural element feels, in contrast to the adventures of the Pongletons and company, to be simultaneously detail-focused and lacking in energy. We traipse up and down the banks of the Cherwell, following a grumpy farmer and spend lots of time tracking movements. I often like those types of detail-driven detective stories (I do, after all, enjoy the adventures of Inspector French) but I found little to excite or interest me here because for much of the book there seems to be little progress being made.

This weakness in the middle section of the novel feels particularly disappointing because the plot’s ultimate destination and explanation of the circumstances behind that death are really quite interesting. Hay clues these developments fairly but I think the relevance of those clues passed me by as I allowed myself to be distracted by some other aspects of the story. This made for quite a satisfying reveal and certainly one of the more memorable resolutions to a Golden Age mystery I have encountered for quite some time.

Fortunately while the mystery elements drag in this section of the book, I found other aspects of the story’s setting to be appealing enough to keep me going. For instance, the characters Hay creates to populate her book with are all pretty recognizable university types of the era and certainly help to ground the action in its Oxford setting. There is a little bit of conflict between town and gown to navigate and some jokes are directed at the students who are studying English Literature and Language because they lack any other passion to pursue.

One aspect of the book that seems to trouble some readers is the portrayal of an Eastern European student who comes under suspicion for basically being foreign in England. While I can see that there are definitely some stereotypes at play, I feel Hay ultimately punctures them later in the story and in the process she shows that character to be a little more developed than she initially appears.

Perhaps my favorite sequence in the novel doesn’t really have anything to do with the mystery at all. It involves a character who has produced a (very!) slim volume of poetry that he is endeavoring to sell through the local bookstore. We are told that students and dons alike have got into the habit of reading entire books while in the shop itself and this character has developed a rather elaborate plan to make sure his copies actually sell. This sequence is handled with a wonderfully light touch and it is probably the thing I will retain longest from this book.

So when it comes to evaluating this novel I am left with a bit of a problem. While Death on the Cherwell starts and finishes well, the middle meanders and is mostly forgettable as a mystery, even if I found other parts of the story that appealed to me. As a result I am a little uncertain about how I feel about it. I certainly found it to be a more entertaining and balanced read than its predecessor and I found its university setting to be pretty appealing but were I reading this purely for the mystery I would probably have given up and not reached the ending.

As things stand though I have bought the final of Hay’s mysteries and will be curious to see how that compares (and if it also fits into the Pongleton universe).

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by drowning (How)

Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

murderunderground
Murder Underground
Mavis Doriel Hay
Originally Published 1935

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.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by strangulation (How)