It was with deep regret that I finished reading Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay – regret because it is the last of her three murder mysteries that I’ve read and there are no more to be savoured. If you’ve read my earlier reviews of her books, you’d know I’m an admirer of Hay’s novels and am very sad that she only ever wrote three mysteries before returning to her beloved rural arts.
Death on the Cherwell is also a sort of continuation from her first book, Murder Underground, and it was nice to see some old friends make a cameo in this book!
One gloomy January afternoon, a group of students from the fictional Persephone College have gathered on the banks of the Cherwell to form the Lode League, a secret society in which part of their code includes cursing the much-loathed school bursar when the lady herself is spotted floating down the river in a canoe… dead. She’d been drowned and her body arranged to lie flat at the bottom of her craft. Who killed the bursar, and why? Why leave her arranged thus in her canoe? Led by the intrepid Sally Watson, the four undergrads set about investigating the bursar’s death.
Death on the Cherwell begins well with a lively cast of characters and an intriguing mystery, though the momentum starts to peter out towards the end. The first two-thirds of the story focuses on the girls and their amateur sleuthing activities, furnished with some great comic touches. Far from being shrinking violets, the young ladies are feisty, smart and lots of fun, and their antics lend some great British boarding school vibes to the story. Think a cross between Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St Trinians.
However, in the last few chapters, the girls start to take a bit more of a backseat, to be replaced by the detective-inspector’s point of view, a change that left me slightly befuddled. I wondered why Hay had spent so much time building up on the girls only to whisk them out of the way – I felt she could have let them play a greater role in uncovering the murderer. Same goes with the red herrings tucked throughout the book – red herrings, of course, are meant to lead readers on merry trails that finish in dead ends, yet I thought they could have been utilized better, perhaps to explore the characters’ stories more deeply and tie up some loose ends.
Right from the start, Hay imbues her book with an atmosphere of cold, damp England that makes you want to reach for your Wellies and some hot toasted crumpets – Persephone is an invented ladies’ college set in Oxford on an island in the midst of the Cherwell River; the girls’ first meeting takes place by the banks on a chilly dark day (on a cold corrugated iron roof, of all things); later on, there is plenty of tramping across wet fields and muddy riverbanks. Hay also utilizes her setting of Oxford well, giving readers glimpses of what the university town must have been like in the 1930s. Those little touches definitely warmed the cockles of my Brit-lit-loving heart.
Death on the Cherwell is a fun cozy read that would fit well on the bookshelf of any British murder mystery lover. Much like the Persephone girls, it’s a little haphazard, but vivacious and lively with some comic notes – and tragic ones too, and with some potential left unfulfilled. It makes me wonder what would have happened if Hay had continued to write more novels – she might have easily slotted in amongst the greats like Sayers and Christie. I also wonder, had she known how much pleasure her books would give future readers, would she have continued to write mysteries as well as her beloved rural crafts books? Sadly, we’ll never know.