Murder Underground

A review of Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay is a new writer to me. She only wrote three crime fiction novels and this was her first, published originally in 1934 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.

As someone who has used London’s tube system for more years than I care to remember, I have often speculated as to the suitability of a station for committing a murder. They are generally crowded offering a degree of anonymity, a well-judged nudge of a shoulder on a crowded platform could cause enough of a domino effect to topple the victim into the path of an oncoming train or there are those vast areas of winding stair columns that commuters rarely travel along, opting for the speed, efficiency and comfort of an escalator or lift instead. Fortunately, these thoughts are just passing fancies, usually brought on by frustration as a service delay is announced, and anyway the prevalence of CCTV cameras these days mean that the likelihood of escaping detection are remote.   

Hay’s crime takes place on the normally deserted stairwell of Belsize Park tube station. The victim is a wealthy but bad-tempered spinster, Euphemia Pongleton, long-term resident of the Frampton Private Hotel and she is strangled to death with her dog’s lead. The stairs are rarely used but three individuals with associations or connections with the lady used the stairs that day. There was also, rather conveniently, a footprint of a small, narrow shoe left in the vicinity.   

Miss Pongleton was clearly not a well-liked character but her fellow residents are intrigued by her demise, especially as the maid’s beau, Bob Thurlow, has been arrested. He worked at the station and a brooch in an envelope with his name on was found on the dead woman. Bob had been implicated in a burglary and she may have had a hold on him. Motive enough for murder? Her nephew, Basil, a bit of an ass in a mild Woosterish sort of way, whom she was forever disinheriting, was short of cash, and had a weak alibi which got weaker every time he tried to explain his actions away.

Fortunately, the women in the story, principally Basil’s girlfriend, Betty, and a resident at the hotel, Mrs Daymer, are made of sterner stuff and through their independent actions, together with the help of a scrapbook, get to the bottom of the mystery and unmask the culprit. The moral of the story is never repeat the way you commit a crime.

The book is unusual in that the police barely make an appearance and when they do, not least Inspector Caird, they follow the wrong leads. Hay tells her story from the point of view of several of the characters rather than the police, some of whom are under suspicion and some of whom, in their own ways, either have something to hide or anxious to absolve from blame someone they are attached to. Police interviews are conducted behind closed doors with Hay concentrating on the characters’ anticipations and reactions to their grillings.

That said, the narrative is fairly clued and, as I did, you can easily get a sense of the identity of the culprit. That did not spoil my enjoyment of what is a light, humorous murder mystery. It carries you along, even allowing for the absurdities of the plot and characters, and Hay takes great delight in satirising the stereotypes that you found in residential hotels at the time and the manoeuvres of the press to winkle out the truth.

I found it thoroughly enjoyable and would read the other two of her books without hesitation.

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