Death On The Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay (1935)

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.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. I really enjoyed this too, and her other 2 crime novels. As you say, she’s very witty! I enjoy crafts, but do wish she’d focused less on this and more on murder 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so pleased to find someone else who has enjoyed this! Somehow, her wit makes this book feel more modern than some other crime novels I’ve read from the same period – what do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know what you mean, wit gives it a quality beyond the immediate situation, and if we find it funny, it feels very direct, timeless.

        I recently read the first of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn series and found her humour amusing – golden age crime with humour is such a treat!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Jan Hicks says:

    So far, I’ve only read Murder Underground, which is brilliant. One day I’ll get round to the other two, especially as they wink at me each time I’m in Waterstone’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Yes some books do wink, don’t they?


  3. B says:

    You had me at “grown-up Secret Seven”!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still love the Secret Seven!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mind you, I wonder if it is the memory of long nights spent reading them as an 8 year old rather than the books themselves – perhaps I need to dip back into them and get the magic back!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. B says:

        That’s true as well! I don’t know if I have quite the same amount of reading stamina to blast through all of those books the same way I did when I was younger.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Gosh I know. I miss those days!

        Liked by 1 person

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