Quick Review (read on for full review)
An enjoyable, light-hearted mystery, in an interesting setting and with an extensive cast of characters. Cosy and charming. 3.5 / 5
Summary (from Goodreads)
For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils in the world: unladylike behavior among her students and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cosy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe.
The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play, and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death – and the clues that point to a fellow student.
This classic mystery novel, with its evocative setting in an Oxford women’s college, is now republished for the first time since the 1930s with an introduction by the award-winning crime writer Stephen Booth
“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.”
(From Death on The Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay, page 11)
“In the garden she found one of those wooden labels used for marking where you’ve planted things, and on part of this she scratched one of her family curses. She explained to me later that it wasn’t the worst sort of curse; it wasn’t supposed to kill the victim but only make her hair fall out or her teeth decay or something of that kind.”
(From Death on The Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay, page 194)
I’m slowly working my way through the British Library Crime Classics, which I am enjoying immensely. Death on The Cherwell is one of three books by this author in this series.
This book was excellent in parts. I enjoyed the fact that it was a fairly light-hearted read, and though it was a little predictable in places, it was cosy and charming. The girls’ secret society was amusing, but their tendency to talk every plan through slowed the pace.
My favourite character was Drega Czernak, a student at Persephone college from Yugoslavia. Read today, I found her character almost serves to poke fun at the correct way the English did everything. I’m not sure that was the intention when the book was published in 1935, as her role is that of the stereotypical foreigner, but that is how I perceived it reading 85 years later.
I had expected the mystery to be solved by the girls of Persephone college as the story opens with them, giving the impression it is they who are about to investigate the murder they are soon to discover. This however, was not the case. Although they remain present throughout the story, it is the police who primarily undertake the investigating while the students maintain a bit more of a “Famous Five” vibe of entertaining adventures in the quest to uncover evidence.
One of the downsides to the story was the extensive cast. There were students to remember from both the girls’ college (Persephone) and the boys’ college (St Simeon’s), then there were the teaching staff, the murder victim and their family, the police (both local and from Scotland Yard), the suspects and then a good number of people connected to everyone else – staff, family, friends…Although I did manage to keep on top of who was who and where they fitted into the story, it did feel a little overwhelming.
I enjoyed this mystery, and am looking forward to reading the author’s other two novels: Murder Underground and The Santa Klaus Murder, at some point in the future. I recommend Death on The Cherwell to those who have a connection to the Oxford colleges or Oxford itself, and equally to those who enjoy golden age crime stories. Well worth a read.