Mavis Doriel Hay: Murder Underground

Title: Murder Underground
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay

If you were suddenly to be found murdered, would your friends have theories about who had done the deed? 

Well, when the wealthy and unpleasant Miss Pongleton meets her end on the stairs of Belsize Park underground station in ‘Murder Underground’, her housemates — though not particularly grieved —have plenty of guesses at the identity of her killer. While they’re merely airing theories, events arise that unexpectedly enable several of them, including Tuppy the terrier, to put them to the test.

Rating: delayed train (but got me where I wanted to go)

Hay only wrote three crime novels and it’s rather interesting to look at how her style changed. Her final Book – The Santa Klaus Murder – is a quite typical country house mystery. The family is home for Christmas, the dad dies and it’s neither unexpected nor natural and the inspector solves the case with some help of an old friend (who just happens to have a connection to the family). Her second book – Death on the Cherwell – is also fairly conventional but has some quirks. The book starts off with amateur sleuths doing some investigating, eventually, the police join in and for a while, we get POV-chapters from both until the police take over completely for the last few chapters.

Now Murder Underground does something that’s very unusual for a mystery: A lot of space is devoted to the POV of Basil who doesn’t do any sleuthing. He’s Miss Pongleton’s nephew and he found her body. Only Basil is not the brightest bulb in the basket and worries that since he only went to visit his aunt because she had threatened to disinherit him, circumstances would make him look very suspicious and so he decides not to call the police. Instead, he rushes off and tries to spin himself an alibi – with the help of some friends whom he begs to lie for him (often without telling them the whole truth) and the reader follows him while he’s doing that. Admittedly, despite having some sympathy for his situation, the longer it kept going, the more I wished for one of them to go “No. I’m not going to do that for you, just own up your mistakes.” because Basil quickly went from loveable idiot to plain idiot who never considered that he might be getting his friends in trouble with what he’s doing.

At the same time, Mrs Daymer, Miss Pongleton’s landlady, makes a discovery that implicates an acquaintance of them in the murder but she considers the whole thing not solid enough to take to the police straight away. She prefers to do some investigating on her own first. Or rather, together with another acquaintance of the deceased. This investigation requires them to rush off immediately after the inquest, and leaving behind the police who had wanted to ask them some more questions.

When we first see the whole thing from the POV of the inspector the book is almost over. And we see that (as most will have suspected) Basil’s actions weren’t as subtle and secretive as he thought they were. The inspector knows that Basil didn’t do what he claimed he did and that some of his friends are covering up for him. He jumps to the rather obvious conclusion that he must have something to do with the murder. But at the same time, the inspector is confused by the actions of Mrs Daymer and her friend and wonders how their behaviour fits in. Presumably, he also wishes he could just leave the case to somebody else and drink a bottle of Gin (at least I would in his place).

I did enjoy this unusual take on a mystery but sadly, like in Death on the Cherwell, the true killer was rather easy to guess. I wonder what would have happened if Hay had continued writing mysteries. Perhaps, after Santa Klaus Murder (which is admittedly well plotted but lacks any memorable characters and feels like painting-by-numbers mystery) she would have gone back to some more unusual takes on the mystery with better plots. As it is, none of her books are really outstanding, just some nice fun. Which isn’t a bad thing to be for a mystery but I also can’t say that you’re missing something important if you’re skipping Hay’s books.

Mavis Doriel Hay: Death on the Cherwell

Cover

Title: Death on the Cherwell
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay

For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behaviour 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. 

Rating: Julian, Dick, George and Ann would approve

Have you ever read a Famous Five, a Three Investigators or any of the other teen detective stories and thought “This was cool, I wish they would get to solve a real murder one day, instead of just hunting smugglers”? Then this book might be for you. Did you ever read any of those stories and think “Who lets these kids do these dangerous things? Why are even the police going ‘hey can you guys help us with that?’ instead of ‘stop what you’re doing, it’s dangerous’?” Then you should give this one a pass. Because this book is basically Famous Five but with undergraduates (and no dog). The girls find the body of the bursar and while they call the police immediately they also keep some information from the police. (Some of it would make themselves look bad and suspicious, other a fellow undergraduate).

And then they decide to do their own investigation. In the cause of it, they trample around a potential crime-scene and touch some evidence, ruining potential fingerprints. When they eventually come clean about it to the inspector he just shrugs and mumbles something along the lines of “if there had been any fingerprints they probably wouldn’t have helped us anyway” and then he even asks them to continue their sleuthing.

So this book will require you to suspend your disbelief a lot and I freely admit that one reason I enjoyed it despite that (and despite the rather easy to guess solution) was that I still have many fond memories of all the teen detectives I used to read and the book hit a very sweet spot for me. Another is probably also that I listened to the audiobook version which was magnificently narrated by Patience Tomlinson. She gives the reading of the book the seriousness it deserves – i.e. a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude that never veers too much into pure comedy. If I’d read the book myself I might have rolled my eyes at a few scenes that made me grin in the audio version.

Mavis Doriel Hay: The Santa Klaus Murder

Mavis Doriel Hay: The Santa Klaus Murder

Globe and Mail Aunt Mildred declared that no good could come of the Melbury family Christmas gatherings at their country residence Flaxmere. So when Sir Osmond Melbury, the family patriarch, is discovered – by a guest dressed as Santa Klaus – with a bullet in his head on Christmas Day, the festivities are plunged into chaos. Nearly every member of the party stands to reap some sort of benefit from Sir Osmond’s death, but Santa Klaus, the one person who seems to have every opportunity to fire the shot, has no apparent motive. Various members of the family have their private suspicions about the identity of the murderer, and the Chief Constable of Haulmshire, who begins his investigations by saying that he knows the family too well and that is his difficulty, wishes before long that he understood them better. 

Rating: C

The house seemed full of lunatics who never gave away anything they knew until it was too late.

At first, I was worried I would be in for a similar reading experience as in The Moonstone, a story with multiple first-person narrators, most of which were annoying people, I couldn’t stand and hated having to spend time in their heads.  The Santa Klaus Murder five first-person narrators, telling the first five chapters and some of those are extremely unlikeable. But then the murder happens and the narration is taken over by Colonel Halstock who investigates the crime. Halfway through we learn that as part of his investigation he asked five of the people who were at the house to write down how they experienced the days leading up to the murder and the first five chapters are those stories. It sure is convenient, that their stories match so perfectly; each person begins his narration just at the point the other ended. And it’s even more convenient that the very first person gives a short rundown of the backstory of everybody involved in the story so that the reader knows who has what motive to murder Sir Osmond. It is however somewhat inconvenient that towards the end of the story there are some major occurrences that happen while Halstock is not around, so we get two more chapters told by somebody else but this time no flimsy excuse for where they come from.

If done well, stories with multiple narrators can be great but this one isn’t done well. I might have even accepted the weird switching around with most chapters told by Halstock and a few by others if the ridiculous explanation that it’s part of the investigation hadn’t been. Of course, mysteries usually don’t portray a realistic picture of police work but this went too far for me.

The story under all this is decent but relies a lot on every single person not telling everything, because they thought it wasn’t important because they don’t want to get in trouble or because they don’t want to get somebody else in trouble. This is a staple of mysteries but unhelpful witnesses usually aren’t the only thing that’s hindering the investigation. Besides, it has a paint-by-numbers feel to it. Halstock finds something out, questions a witness about it, the witness gives new information, he goes to the next witness with that new information, they tell him something new…

In between all that, there are characters that go beyond being black or white cardboard-cutouts and the solution to the mystery is not easy to guess without being unfair. Perhaps the book also suffers from having a plot (horrible family patriarch gets murdered over Christmas) that reminds me a lot of Portrait of a Murderer and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and in comparison with those it can only lose. I’m willing to give another book by the author a try but I’m not rushing to getting it.