Death On The Cherwell

A review of Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death is to Oxford as espionage is to Cambridge. The detective fiction writers’ fixation with Oxford and its environs as murder capital central is well established, but one of the earliest to make the association is this rather curious novel, written by Mavis Doriel Hay, originally published in 1935 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.

This is Hay’s second crime novel, following on from Murder Underground, and there are links between the two books. Betty, who played a starring role in sleuthing the solution to the murder of her fiancé’s aunt, Euphemia Pongleton, has now married him and visits her sister, Sally, who is up at Persephone College, an all-girls’ college in Oxford. Sally, too, has pretensions to amateur sleuthing and takes the lead in the unofficial investigation into the suspicious death of the college bursar, Miss Denning. Betty plays a part, albeit low key.

I did not enjoy this book as much as Hay’s earlier novel and part of my problem is down to the fact that the book is rather rudderless, without a clear sense of direction and left to drift on the current going wherever the fancy takes it. At the outset I thought I had picked up a copy of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, with four undergrads setting up a secret society to put a curse on the unpopular college bursar. Implausibly, they meet on the roof of the boathouse in early January, notwithstanding the summery picture of punting on the cover, to swear their oath of allegiance and place their curse on the unfortunate woman.

Imagine their surprise then when they see Denning’s canoe floating down the Cherwell – she is an enthusiastic canoeist who goes out in all weathers and all times of the year – with the body of the unfortunate woman inside it. When they get the boat to the bank, they find that Denning’s body was put back into the canoe and left to drift off, after she had sustained a severe blow to the back of the head. It appears it was neither an unfortunate accident nor suicide but murder.

The girls set out to investigate what happened. Cue a series of jolly japes, nocturnal adventures, climbing in and out of windows and frustrating the investigations of the police by, inadvertently in their enthusiasm, destroying what would have been vital evidence. Inspector Wythe has the unenviable job of trying to establish what has gone on, mainly through the testing of alibis. Any threat of straying into Wills Crofts territory is averted as the plot and puzzle is so light that it is easy to see through.      

Whilst Hay gives some interesting and gently satirical insights into varsity life at the time, her characterisations are weak. The four undergrad girls are almost interchangeable, with little attempt to develop their character beyond that which is necessary for the storyline to progress. This part of the book has the feel of a light satire of varsity life, full of the rituals, the slang, and the unworldly concerns of university life. Draga, the Yugoslav student, stands out in this section, but mainly because she is the butt of the little Englander attitudes that prevailed at the time.

The tone of the book changes once more with the arrival of Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard, settling down to become a more conventional police investigation. Blackmail, illegitimacy, a change of clothes and an altercation are at the heart of the mystery. Introducing a character called Mort into such a book is likely to give the game away, but to give Hay her due she manages to introduce a twist in the tale.

It was a good enough read, but had Hay decided quite what tone and style she wanted to strike and stuck with it, it might have moved up from a solid second class to a first.  

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