Sunday, 7 September 2014

A trio of 1930s Oxford murder mysteries

If you love old crime novels, you'll know it's getting harder and harder to find them nowadays – it's been ages since I've found a decent stock of greenback Penguins, which used to be ten-a-penny. Imagine my delight, then, when Mr Robot and I nipped into Waterstones in Trowbridge yesterday and I saw that the British Library had started re-releasing classic crime novels from the past. There are currently eleven novels in the British Library Crime Classics series, and I hope there will be many more.



(Note for non-Brits: the British Library isn't a company, it's the central national library, and a copy of every book and newspaper published in the UK is held there, as well as many major historic papers, and academics can research there. I've used it myself, for looking up family history information as the Library holds many of the official papers from the East India Company and colonial-era India Office.)

The first one I read was Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay. She only wrote three crime novels and this is the second; the first has also been reprinted but it wasn't on sale in my local bookshop. However, I probably would've chosen this one anyway because I recently read Death at the President's Lodging by Michael Innes and reread Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, and it's interesting to contrast and compare the three.

All three of the novels I've mentioned were written in the 1930s by former Oxford students, and are mysteries set in Oxford colleges. Death on the Cherwell and Gaudy Night are the most plausible; there's one murder in the former, and one you can imagine happening very easily, while in Gaudy Night there's a nasty outbreak of poison-pen letters, a near-suicide and a near-murder. The murder in Death at the President's Lodging, with old bones scattered around the victim, is by far the least plausible.

Cherwell is a fairly simple tale, and possibly because the murder is so realistic I worked out the killer and the reason for the killing fairly early on, which was a bit disappointing, and might explain why Doriel Hay's novels have gone out of print. Agatha Christie's tales are simple on the surface, but they're remained popular because when you're new to one, it's very hard to identify the culprit. Lodging is the most convoluted, and you get the feeling that Innes was more interested in the 'howdunnit' than the 'whodunnit' – the intellectual challenge takes precedence over characterisation. Gaudy Night balances between the two; Sayers creates very realistic characters and they act in the ways you would expect those people to. It's not obvious who's behind the nasty letters, but it makes perfectly logical sense once you know what's provoked the writer.

Gaudy Night will always be my favourite of the three as far as detectives go. While it's often called a Peter Wimsey novel, for me the real star is Harriet Vane, who brings in her fiance later on. Harriet is spiky and intellectual, not afraid to speak her mind or butt heads. I don't always like Harriet, but I do always appreciate her. In this novel, too, she's wrestling with her own problems: she's one of the first generation of women to graduate from Oxford, and she has her own career, but in the 1930s getting married will mean giving up much of her independence. It gives her depth. It's unfair of me to judge Lodging's Inspector Appleby in the same way as this book was his debut, whereas Vane and Wimsey were established characters. He's thoughtful, decent and not afraid to take risks, but owning a yellow Bentley doesn't come close to giving him Harriet Vane's depth of character. Cherwell's DI Braydon is much of the same type, though less clever than the intelligent Appleby. Both policemen are outsiders and do get treated as such by the academics.

Now the students. Ah, the students. In both Cherwell and Lodging I found them very immature, which I suppose they ought to be. Very few of us are very grown up when we're 18. However, very few of us bounce around murder scenes with the overprivileged oafishness of a Bertie Wooster, or deliberately hide things from the police so we could investigate for ourselves, and I did find myself wishing someone would smack a few student bottoms. I warmed to both groups by the end of their respective novels, and thought the quartet of female undergrads (leader, saucepot, sarky minx, fashionista) in Cherwell gave it great cinematic potential, but they were annoying at the start. Sayers' characterisation is so much better that her students don't irritate in the same way. They may be young but they feel like real young people rather than giddy asses.

And in all the books, Oxford, and the University in particular, is the star. Even in the one with the least description, Death on the Cherwell, you get a sense of the beauty of the old college buildings, and of the gorgeous gilded mode of life enjoyed by students there between the wars. If I didn't have friends who work there (and therefore a more realistic view of what Tourist Hell the place is) I might be tempted to visit Oxford for myself! Perhaps, though, it's a place best visited through books. Just don't fall over any corpses in your journey through the pages.

11 comments :

  1. You should visit Oxford! Just don't come in the tourist season :-)

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    1. I have you and other pals there, I should just pop on the train. I bet there's loads to do even if I spend the whole day on my own.

      When is tourist season? I'm guessing it'll be like Bath, and the only quiet times are January-February and November.

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  2. I find reading books set in Oxford makes me like the place much better, and recently read Death on the Cherwell myself - I thought it was enjoyable enough but definitely not a patch on Gaudy Night (then again, few things are), and like you I worked out the twist early on.

    If you fancy another Oxford-based mystery I love Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop. (And Death at the President's Lodging is technically not set in Oxford but in an ancient university very like Oxford - though some of Innes' later books are actually set in Oxford.)

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    1. Oooh, ta for that. I've had a few people recommend The Moving Toyshop but I've yet to stumble across a copy.

      President's Lodging wasn't set in Oxford, but really, it was as Oxfordy as you could get. :-) Sneaky Innes! Given how many books Innes wrote, it's weird that I don't have many.

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  3. I haven't read those ones, but I am partial to these old murder mystery type books.
    I quite like Majorie Allingham, too. And I'm always looking for old copies of everything.
    I love Persehone books with a passion. So much that is published today is just tripe...and not only that, the lack of proof reading drives me to crazy, frothing rage!

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    1. Ah, Persephone! I started trying to collect them and realised I simply couldn't afford to - and that it made more sense to simply buy the ones I actually wanted, just like I would with any other publisher. I do love their books, though.

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  4. This reminds me that5 I really must read some Agatha Cristie at some point becuse I've never actually read any of her work (disgraceful I know!)

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    1. As with all prolific writers, she can be patchy. I do enjoy them, though, even the earlier stuff, which really shows its adventure story roots.

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  5. I have download some to kindle so did not notice they had the British Library connection, the Lake District murder and underground murder. LDM is to easy a plot, more the police process and did not have enough of the period detail for me or the magic of the landscape. Underground Murder I have only started, yet so far I love it as the people jump off the page, with the descriptions of them being a bit non political correct in their cutting edge you feel guilt laughing at them, can so picture the lodging house dinning room atmosphere and be thankful to live in your own home.

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    1. Ah, I've got Lake District to come. I shall have to see what I make of it!

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  6. I found in my local Waterstones that they had a section for older crime novels and so many sounded really interesting. My friend often reads them so I am going to borrow a few.

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