First Class Murder: Robin Stevens

★★★★

A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book III

When I spotted this in a second-hand bookshop the other day, it felt like Destiny. It was high time for another tale of jolly japes, cream buns and shocking murders. But this time, Daisy and Hazel aren’t looking for trouble at all. Quite the contrary. As Daisy’s family gather in London for the trial that follows the terrible events at Fallingford, Daisy herself sets off with Hazel and Hazel’s father on a magical holiday on the Orient Express. They have been warned to behave themselves and to stop ‘playing’ at being detectives. But that is easier said than done in a sleeper coach where there are so many fascinating people – especially when the girls learn that one of their fellow travellers is a spy going to pass secrets to the Germans, and another – as becomes clear – must be a murderer. Without a doubt, the Detective Society can’t let this lie! And so Daisy and Hazel become involved in their most thrilling and dangerous case yet.

These stories are like warm blankets and a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter night. They’re aimed at young readers, of course, but there’s plenty in here to appeal to adults as well. Stevens is clearly having a ball as she brings together the most unlikely band of fellow travellers: the obnoxious businessman William Daunt and his fractious, immature heiress wife; an elderly Russian countess and her American grandson; the spiritualist Madam Melinda; the famous magician Il Mysterioso; the crime novelist Robert Strange; and, last but not least, the frivolous young Mrs Vitellius, wife of a copper magnate. Or at least, that’s who she says she is. For Daisy and Hazel know better. They’ve seen Mrs Vitellius before, although she looked rather different back then and had a different name, when she was pretending to be a governess at Fallingford.

Thrilled by the thought that something is obviously up – why else would the British secret agent Miss Livedon be on the Orient Express? – the girls sharpen their ears. But their spy-hunting is swiftly overshadowed one evening by a high-pitched scream, a theft, and a body discovered in a locked compartment. How can a murderer vanish from the scene of the crime in the mere seconds it takes for others to come running? Why would anyone want the victim dead? And is this evidence of magical powers – or simply of a plot so devious that only the Detective Society will be able to solve it in time? Fortunately – or unfortunately, in Daisy’s opinion – they’re not alone. They find an unexpected ally among their fellow travellers, proving that – sometimes – teamwork is the best solution.

When I realised that this novel was set in 1935 and (obviously) involved a trip across Europe, I wondered how Stevens was going to balance the accurate reflection of the time with her cosy style. However, I’d temporarily forgotten the skill she has already shown in other books, in revealing the subtle and not-so-subtle xenophobia which Hazel faces in England. Stevens extends the same quiet sympathy to the suffering peoples of Europe, and especially to Jewish people: while many of the characters scoff at the idea that they’re being targeted, Hazel privately thinks of her own experiences, and wonders… Having said that, though, this isn’t remotely preachy or weighted. It simply gives context to a rambunctious adventure which, I freely admit, kept me guessing until the last few chapters (my favoured suspect turned out to be distressingly innocent).

As always with this series, this lovely novel comes highly recommended for some brisk escapist fun, and is best savoured with disbelief firmly suspended. You can read it if you’re seven or seventy, because you’re likely to enjoy it just as much either way.

Buy the book

Last in the series – Arsenic for Tea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s