More detective fiction! But this time it’s actually from the interwar period–the Golden Age–rather than just being set there. An all-female Oxford college, full of clever, high-spirited girls with enough time to form secret societies, punt on the Cherwell (a tributary of the Thames), and, when the body of their much-disliked bursar is found floating down the river in a boat, try to solve the mystery before their college is brought into disrepute by bad publicity.
There’s the usual cast of characters–the ring-leader Sally, the Eastern European girl Draga with a hot temper and a grudge and vague superstitions (her characterisation is not subtle, though it’s pointed out that the policeman expects her understanding of English to be poor although she’s an undergraduate at OXFORD), the absent-minded academic, the members of the boys’ college down the river who might have innocent reasons for fudging the details of their movements around the ladies’ campus–or not.
It’s a slight novel–nowhere near as deep, or indeed as inflected with anxiety or contemplation as Dorothy L. Sayers’s Oxford-set Gaudy Night, which examines the tensions of an almost too close-knit community of women trying to establish themselves in a field of higher learning recently barred from them, with plenty of comment on the academic aspects as well as the more frivolous elements and escapades of college life. But the detective aspect in Death on the Cherwell is interesting, the Oxford setting is well-realised, it’s told with verve and sympathy, and there are amusing interludes–an encounter between one of the girls and a very modern poet, for example–and the relish with which the girls enjoy their lives away from their families, between school and (the generally expected fate of) marriage, is infectious. Mavis Doriel Hay’s work is only recently back in print via the British Library Crime Classics series, and this is the only one I’ve read so far, but it’s definitely inspired me to read more of Hay’s work, and investigate others in the series.