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Death on the Cherwell (British Library Crime Classics) Paperback – June 15, 2014
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And Myra Denning is very much dead.
And she appears to have drowned. But if she drowned, then how did she get into the canoe?
So begins Mavis Doriel Hay’s “Death on the Cherwell,” one of three mysteries published by Hay in the 1930s and recently republished by the British Library (the others being “Murder Underground and The Santa Klaus Murder”).
“Death on the Cherwell” is kind of a locked room mystery. While there’s no apparent shortage of suspects – from local residents fighting the sale of land to the undergraduates themselves – everyone involved seems to have something of an airtight alibi. The local detective investigating the murder is somewhat confounded; the college girls start doing some sleuthing of their own; and eventually Scotland Yard arrives. And it is the Yard who will ultimately solve the murder. And murder it indeed is.
Hay attended St. Hilda’s College at Oxford, at a time when women could attend but not graduate. She draws upon that experience for this story, and it has the feel of the city and colleges we know as Oxford (says this seasoned traveler who’s been there all of one time).
While story looks like one without a solution, it has one, of course. And the shape of it appears fairly early in the narrative – the key is something of a secret, buried in the past. Those secrets, however, have a bad habit of surfacing at inconvenient times.
It’s a fun story, too, and includes cameo appearances by two of the characters from “Murder Underground.”
The three stories were Hay’s only contributions to the Golden Age of the mystery story (and the sub-genre popularized by Agatha Christie). For whatever reason, she left mystery writing behind, and turned her creative energies to other endeavors, especially quilt making. But we do have these three.
According to the very interesting introduction, women were not eligible for degrees at Oxford until 1920. Prejudice against women is a strong theme in Hay's novel, though many other factors are considered in solving the crime. The victim is Miss Denning, bursar of the college, and universally unpopular. Scotland Yard is brought in to help the local inspector. But before he arrives, several undergrads are deeply engaged in amateur sleuthing. Their behavior is somewhat juvenile, naturally enough, but the students do uncover a few thing of interest to the police.
The book is well plotted, and I read it from beginning to end, but without much enthusiasm. Too many immature characters for my taste. Their escapades are meant to be charming, but I was not particularly charmed.
two if you like the country house kind of mystery. Of her sories, this is the weakest but still very entertaining.