Death on the Cherwell (1935) – Mavis Doriel Hay

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Four undergraduates of the female-only Persephone College, Oxford University, meet on the roof of the boathouse one cold January day to form the Lode League. Its purpose of cursing the hated Bursar of their college, Miss Denning, becomes a bit awkward when the League spot her drowned body drifting downstream in her canoe. The League decides to protect their friends from any accusations by investigating.

Death on the Cherwell was another of my holiday reads. I hadn’t intended to get it, but Blackwell’s Bookshop has tons of copies lying around… and since the bookshop features in the book briefly I can see why. The Oxford locale was very strong here, too – lots of time driving around Oxford and visiting pubs. Like The Moving Toyshop, the characters are affiliated with a fictional college, though the fictional locations are much more extensive here.

Initially it seems like the detectives will be the four female undergraduates who make up the Lode League, acting as amateur investigators. I was a bit trepidatious of this since the Lode League were acting more like characters from a kid’s book, with their oaths and secret society and night-time escapades. As well as them acting juvenile, I also found it difficult to tell them apart. The leader, Sally Beaumont, stands out, but the rest get little to do and are very one-dimensional. The girls decide they are investigating for the sake of their Yugoslavian friend Draga, because they feel she will get herself into trouble with the police. Draga is very broadly drawn, and the girls’ treatment of her is patronizing, though I do get the feeling that might be a demonstration of their naivety.

The Lode League find themselves competing with a pair of police investigators: the local Inspector Wythe and Detective Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard. The police begin to pick up the focus of the book and the girls quickly end up out of their depth. I was surprised at the focus on the policemen. Braydon seems a bit posher than an Inspector French type, but the investigation does have some of that Freeman Wills Croft style thoroughness (poor Inspector Wythe gets all the hard work though).

The culprit seemed obvious to me as soon as they appeared, so any mystery in the book is left for the exact logistics of the crime. A timetable makes an appearance, drawn up by one of the police sleuths, and there’s also the question of why a drowned body would be placed in the canoe anyway. Though this is all rigorously clued, the mystery is a thin one.

Left, the map from Death on the Cherwell. Right, modern map from Open Street Maps.
As you can see, the fictional layout doesn’t quite match with reality. Real life St. Hilda’s College, apparently the basis for fictional Persephone, lies further south along the Cherwell.

There’s a minor theme of the young students not realising that the adults around them have lives outside of being teachers and staff. This works well with the character of Pamela Exe, who is just setting out into the uncharted waters of adulthood. Pamela is the niece of the Bursar, taken in by her after her mother’s death, and so she brings with her some context of what Myra Denning was like as a person, to the great surprise of the Lode girls. Pamela studies at Cambridge, and arrives along with Sally’s sister Betty and brother in law Basil. Betty provides a voice of wisdom and experience, and with what Pamela has gone through, she needs it. I quickly found that Pamela became the emotional centre of the book, and I found that by the end I cared about what would happen to her. She was also an interesting character in her own right. Unfortunately, while her story is set up for a great emotional impact, the story ends very abruptly without resolving the plot for any of the characters.

The real strongest points of the book are the humour and the minor characters, which often go together. There are a lot of characters which appear for only one or two scenes and then disappear, and they are far more interesting and fun to read about than the main cast. I particularly liked Owen Vellaway, the aspiring poet, who is full of tips on how to prevent your book from being read for free in bookshops. Any scene involving him was very funny, and I was disappointed not to see more of him. Owen’s fellow undergraduates and the knowledgeable Aunt Sophia also put in fine performances. It’s when wittily depicting these side characters that Hay’s writing really shines.

But it feels like Hay is not able to commit to anything in this mystery – the amateur detection or the police procedural, the emotional climax for Pamela. It all ends up being a pleasant paddle down the river, without being memorable or ending up anywhere interesting.

Other opinions:

Clothes In Books
Desperate Reader
Do You Write Under Your Own Name
Mysteries Ahoy
Window Through Time

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