On one level, I would describe Death On The Cherwell as a sort of grown-up Secret Seven. There are some strong Jolly Hockey Sticks vibes running through this tale of an Oxford college bursar dying in strange circumstances and the efforts of a group of female undergraduates to solve the mystery of her demise, what with the formation of a secret society, the ongoing description of the murder as ‘the great canoe mystery’, tales of how so-and-so’s sister solved some other ‘great mystery of…’, midnight recces to spooky buildings, and youthful camaraderie (‘if we’re in the soup, we’ll be in it together’…surely a phrase equally applicable after drinking too many Jagerbombs and missing the last train home).
However, Hay’s wit elevates this tale well beyond a post-puberty Blyton escapade. Take, for example, the amusing observations about university life:
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.
About a detective’s approach to foreigners:
Wythe’s distrust of foreigners made him anxious to be fair to Draga, so he spoke very slowly and distinctly, since it did not occur to him that as Draga was an undergraduate of Oxford she probably understood English quite well.
And about the casual sexism meted out to 1930s female students:
Publicity was Miss Cordell’s bugbear. Respectable publicity was bad enough because newspaper reporters, however carefully instructed, were liable to break out into some idiocy about ‘undergraduettes’ or ‘academic caps coquettishly set on golden curls.’
Of course, I could have taken umbrage at the predictable Oxonian digs towards my alma mater, such as the quip that the dead bursar’s niece was sent to Cambridge as ‘the girl’s soft’, but I was too in love with Mavis by this point to really mind. I should state though that, while I cannot speak for students at other Cambridge colleges, we were double-hard-wotsits at Emmanuel. For example, there were at least three boys who regularly wore Puffa Jackets, a sure sign of hardness amidst a sea of deck shoes and signet rings.
Hay wrote two other crime novels, also published in the excellent British Library Crime Classics series – Murder Underground and The Santa Klaus Murder. She then ceased all the Agatha Christie malarkey, and, as a researcher at the Rural Industries Council, did much for the Welsh quilting industry, as well as publishing several books on crafts from the 1950s onwards. As a (one-eighth) Welshwoman, I am very grateful for these crafty endeavours in my ancestral homeland, but I do wish she had written more of these witty crime romps.