May 6, 2016

Death on the Cherwell

A sloping roof of cold, corrugated iron, above the brownish waters of the river Cherwell and beneath the stark boughs of a willow, might not appeal to a sane adult human being as an ideal resort at four o'clock on a gloomy January afternoon. But Sally Watson had declared that it was the perfect spot for a certain mysterious confabulation, and her fellow conspirators had accepted her judgment and were all gathered there. ... Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human. 
Our library has recently gotten in about a dozen of these British Library Crime Classics, and since I'd be drawn to any book with those four words on its cover (and since our friends have been reading and enjoying them), I was happy to see that.  This is the first one I borrowed, probably because of its Oxford setting. {Though technically I should have read her first book, Murder Underground, first, since some of the characters reappear in this one, though since it's not really a series, so it doesn't matter :) }.    

In the introduction, I read that Mabel Doriel Hay attended St. Hilda's College from 1913 to 1916 (as did P.D. James, later), in the years when women could study at Oxford but not earn a degree. {The intro doesn't mention this, but Barbara Pym was at St. Hilda's, too, about the time this book was written. I thought it sounded familiar!) Hay published three mystery novels in the 1930s, then turned to writing about rural crafts.  It was interesting to read that this novel was a fairly early example of crime fiction set in Oxford, and was published at about the same time {1935} as Gaudy Night (which to me is a very different, much deeper book).

As the book opens, four young women are perched on the roof of the Persephone College boathouse, meeting to launch a secret society {'the formation of esoteric societies is one of the favourite pastimes of undergraduates'} dedicated to foiling the dreaded Miss Denning {'Persephone once had a bursar: / There's really no need to asperse her:  / But her influence rife, / Has blighted our life, / So we're forming the Lode League to curse her.'}.  Before they can return to Sally's room to toast crumpets and write down the League's rules, they hear the sound of a boat bumping against the riverbank. They scramble down to investigate, only to find that no one is paddling the canoe, and 'the Burse' is lying in the bottom of the boat, drowned,

Of course, the girls decide that they must investigate, and of course they help and harass the kindly police inspector and the dashing Chief Superintendent from Scotland Yard. In the end, the mystery isn't much of a mystery, but there's a lot of gentle humor and the characters and the setting are fun to spend time with.  So, if I were (ahem) seriously reviewing this book, I wouldn't be able to give it high marks, but since I was wiling away a few cozy hours, with the kind of fiction I love best, I'd give it a lot of stars. That happens a lot,  I'm greatly looking forward to reading her other two novels.


Terra Hangen said...

Gentle humor is always welcome to me as a change of pace reading.

JoAnn said...

You're not making my choice of what to read next any easier ;-)