A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book I
Were you a Malory Towers or St Clare’s type? For me it was always Malory Towers. As a child I dreamed of going to such a boarding school, with a saltwater swimming pool at the base of a cliff, midnight feasts, a French mistress called ‘Mam’zelle’, san, tuck and lacrosse. Never mind that such a school hadn’t existed since the 1950s: my comprehensive school seemed thoroughly dull in comparison. And so I fell completely in love with this delightful book – allegedly for children, but really just as enjoyable for grown-ups – which taps into this nostalgic strain of British literature with its tongue firmly in cheek.
It is 1934 and Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are in the third form at Deepdean School. They are best friends, although at first sight they are very different. Daisy is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, the daughter of a lord, who is usually found galloping around a lacrosse pitch glowing with health and covered with mud. Hazel is quieter and more thoughtful, the daughter of a Hong Kong banker who has been sent to school in England, and who has grown to hate Games lessons with a kind of deflated resignation. But the two girls share two very important secrets. First, they are both far cleverer than they pretend to be: it simply wouldn’t do to be seen as a swot. And, secondly, they are the only members of a top-secret society: the Detective Society (Daisy is President; Hazel is Secretary). So far the girls have focused on solving vanishing tuck-boxes and petty thefts among their friends in their dorm, but they are about to be faced with their first real case.
It begins, of course, with a body. Late one afternoon, Hazel stumbles across the corpse of the Science mistress, Miss Bell, in the deserted gymnasium, spreadeagled beneath the precipitous gym balcony. Did she fall or was she pushed? The plot thickens when, having rushed to fetch Daisy, Hazel returns to find that the body has vanished. This proves to the girls that they are dealing with a cold and calculating murder. But who could possibly have a reason to kill Miss Bell? And why don’t the other members of staff seem concerned about her disappearance? With no trace of the body, the Detective Society must search for a motive and so Daisy and Hazel find themselves delving into the morass of resentment, envy and thwarted desire that simmers among the teachers at the school.
Immensely readable, this is a book that knows exactly what it’s parodying and does so with pitch-perfect panache. Everything is here: the tuck break (called ‘bunbreak’), canned tongue, the worshipful Head Girl, and irritating prefects. We even have a gang of the Three Marys, which will delight anyone who, like me, spent their childhood poring over Bunty. Although she doesn’t make the mistake of imposing 21st-century values on her characters, Stevens’s choice to use Hazel as her narrator means that we get an ‘outsider’s’ view of this very British institution, as well as giving Deepdean a slightly more cosmopolitan population than Blyton’s books. Hazel is also a thoroughly charming character – outwardly shy and deferential, but inwardly simmering with a desire to be given her due, and a surprising talent for analysing those around her.
Obviously I shall be reading the rest of the books in due course: the series currently has five installments and there are two extra short stories available for Kindle on Amazon. If you have even the slightest fondness for this kind of fiction, do give this a go. Stevens’s writing bubbles with humour, and her Holmes and Watson in pinafores promise to have many more adventures to come. By Jove, I can’t wait!