Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

Mavis Doriel Hay (1894-1979) wrote only three crime novels, all published in the 1930s. They slipped completely under the radar until the British Library decided to bring them out recently in their Crime Classics imprint. And oh how glad we should be that they did.

murder undergroundMurder Underground, published in 1934, takes place in north-west London, where Hay herself lived. As it happens I once lived in that area myself for a few years, so the map of the relevant part of the London Underground system, which is usefully provided at the beginning, was very familiar to me. But it’s also crucial to an understanding of the finer points of the plot. The action takes place mainly in what is rather grandly called the Frampton Private Hotel, actually in fact what’s normally known as a boarding house, which is run by the black-silk-clad Mrs Bliss. Mrs Bliss’s guests, or lodgers, are working men and women who, as the novel begins, set off on the Underground for their various places of work. By the evening, when they all return, the news has reached them that Miss Pongleton has been found murdered on the very long staircase which leads to the platforms of Belsize Park Station.

The first suspect is Bob Thurlow, the boyfriend of Nellie the maid, but attention soon shifts to Basil Pongleton, Euphemia’s nephew, who is also the fiancé of one of the lodgers, Betty Wilson. Basil is behaving in a most curious manner, but that may be owing to the fact that he is a writer, who is, as Dorothy Sayers wrote in her 1934 review of the novel, ‘one of the most feckless and exasperating and lifelike literary men who ever confused a trail’. Great confusion ensues, as everybody in the hotel has a go a a bit of detective work, and theories pile up one on top of another until the case is finally solved by the combined brains of the amateur sleuths.

The story is fun, but the best thing about this novel for me was the insight into life in a London boarding house. The young women off to their secretarial jobs, the men off to their offices – the rather forced communal activities and meals – the antipathies that naturally develop. This is a kind of life that I don’t think exists any more, or not in the UK, anyway, where nowadays its all flat-sharing and bedsits. Whether that’s an improvement is hard to say, but that’s by the by. Altogether very enjoyable.

cherwellThe year after Murder Underground, in 1935, Hay published her second novel, Death on the Cherwell. This is a university story, and by coincidence (presumably) came out at the same time as Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. I’m not actually a huge fan of Sayers, but even if you are, this is so well worth reading for the comparison. I hasten to say, though, that you don’t need to have read Gaudy Night to enjoy this delightful romp, for that is really what it is. Set in a womens’ college that Hay names Persephone, though it seems to be based on St Hilda’s. In any case it is situated next to the Cherwell River, and the story begins with a group of young women perched on the corrogated iron roof of the college boathouse, hatching a plan for a new society, the Lode League. Its sole purpose seems to be cursing the college Bursar, Myra Denning, or Burse, much disliked by all the students. But just as they have taken their vows, they spot an unmanned canoe coming down the river and manage with great difficulty to pull it in to land, only to find it contains none other than the Burser herself, very much dead.

They dragged the canoe in alongside a punt. In it lay a woman stretched at full length beneath the thwarts and partly covered by a long tweed coat. Her green jersey and tweed skirt were sodden and her wet, fair hair was looped rakishly over one eye and streaked across her palid face that was smeared with dark mud. Her partly open mouth and the one free eye horribly upturned, gaped vacantly.

Once again, as in Murder Underground, it’s the amateurs that undertake the investgation – the students are aided by Basil Pongleton, now married to Betty, who is the sister of one of the girls.

I thought this was an absolute delight. The plot is intricate, but particularly interesting for the way in which the girls’ perception of their hated Burser undergoes considerable modification as they slowly discover facts about her life which show that she was a very different and much more interesting person than they had imagined. Hay has perfectly caught the tone and attitudes of these young people, so bright but so inexperienced, as she wisely comments:

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. Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood-earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again with the advantage of an undimmed memory of their former lives.

Full of wonderful insights into college life of the 1930s, rivalries between town and gown, smart cars and lunches at the Mitre, and of course a murder to solve into the bargain, this is a terrific read and highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Mavis Doriel Hay, Murder Underground (British Library Crime Classics: London, 2014) 978-0712357258, 288pp., paperback.

Mavis Doriel Hay, Death on the Cherwell (British Library Crime Classics: London, 2014) 978-0712357265, 288pp., paperback.

7 Comments

  1. Simon

    These sound so wonderful, Harriet, I’m going to have to add them to my tbr! Can’t decide which appeals more – the one set in a boarding house or the one set in Oxford….

    1. Simon, the Oxford one is bound to appeal to you — such fun to read about places you already know. Lunches at the Mitre, walks along the river — great stuff.

    1. Knowledge of the underground is not a pre-requisite! You’ll learn more about it anyway. And they are really good fun.

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