Jolly Foul Play: Robin Stevens

★★★★

A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book 4

Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells have returned from their eventful summer holiday on board the Orient Express and it’s time for another school year at Deepdean. However, if our doughty detectives were hoping for a bit of a break from intrigue, they’re to be disappointed. When the school’s widely-loathed Head Girl drops dead during a fireworks display, murder is swiftly diagnosed, via the discovery of a bloodied hockey stick. Plenty of people have a motive to murder Elizabeth Hurst, who has been making everyone’s lives miserable, but who could possibly have had the opportunity? And who could have made it past the Five, Elizabeth’s eternal companions? Unfortunately the school’s trials are only just beginning and, to make matters worse, there is unrest at the heart of the Detective Society itself, as Daisy and Hazel’s friendship faces its greatest test yet.

That test comes in an unexpected form: a boy. Back in First Class Murder, Daisy and Hazel met the enterprising Alexander, an American boy who was also a member of a detective society, the Junior Pinkertons (to Daisy’s disgust). Hazel has struck up a pen-pal friendship with Alexander, writing about school and even their current cases, which she knows is risky because Daisy will go absolutely ballistic if she finds out that Hazel is breaking the Society’s confidence; and with a boy no less. I remember the sense of injury and loss when my best friend at school got her first boyfriend, and suddenly our own world of secrets and in-jokes seemed to be tossed aside as something childish and unimportant; so I sympathise with Daisy, especially as I fear that, back in the day, I may have been similarly uncompromising. But I also feel deeply for Hazel, as she struggles to reconcile her deep fondness for Daisy with the thrill of having someone who writes to her, and thinks of her, rather than always having to play second fiddle to Daisy. It’s a crucial moment of adolescence for our girls, and a very normal and familiar one, which sits alongside their rather less familiar crime-solving activities.

There are other stresses and strains at school as well as the murder (which, of course, makes everyone frantic: the school has barely recovered from the murder in the first book). After Elizabeth’s death, someone gets hold of her book of secrets – with which she holds the power of a blackmailer over so many of the girls – and the secrets begin to filter out: cruel, excoriating, shameful and embarrassing truths designed to wound reputations for ever. (If anyone thinks that such malevolence is beyond children, all I can say is that you clearly never went to a girls’ school.) Daisy and Hazel must find out who has the secret book, partly to halt the vicious attacks on their schoolmates, but also because it might provide the crucial clue to identifying Elizabeth’s killer.

On one level, Robin Stevens’s books are always delightful pastiches of the kind of girls’-school books I read as a child: midnight feasts, Matron, intrigues amongst the pupils and distant, magnificently disengaged teachers. But what Stevens does so well is to couple this rascally adventure with a serious underlying message about belonging. Since the beginning of the series, Hazel has faced jibes about her Asian heritage and has learned to cope with it as best she can, with a kind of stoic dignity: ‘Grown-ups never see the truth of what goes on among us. They have forgotten quite how difficult it is to be young.‘ But the books are now inching their way later and later in the 1930s and Stevens’s books faithfully reproduce the new prejudices that are developing – especially against the Jews. This was something that we already saw, slightly, in First Class Murder and it comes back into play here. School bullying has given us the world in microcosm: now it’s time for our heroines to become increasingly aware of the cruelties of the wider European stage.

Never fear, though. Stevens’s humour remains intact. Hazel remains delightfully torn between a teenage girl’s growing awareness of her figure (‘When I measured myself last week, I found I have hardly grown at all – or at least, not upwards‘) and an entirely relatable passion for food (‘I was so angry that I only thought about the sticky toffee pudding twice on the way out‘). She is an adorable narrator, always trying to be nice and kind and patient; and so, when she does lose her temper with Daisy, it’s quite striking. These two make a perfect pair, ideal complements both as friends and as partners in the art of detection. I’ve been following them (on and off) for over two years now, unwilling to read too quickly in case the books run out, and I’m delighted to say that Book 8 is due out very soon, so I can probably afford to go a little bit faster. As ever, highly recommended both for children and children-at-heart: a glorious, plucky adventure with characters you can’t help but love, whether that’s the gentle Hazel or spiky, fragile Daisy.

Buy the book

Last in the series – First Class Murder
Next in the series – Mistletoe and Murder

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