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.