Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death on the Cherwell

As I was off in India before last month’s U3A Reading Group and I forgot to download our book before I went I simply didn’t read it so this month I’m making sure I have read our book for discussion in plenty of time; Death on The Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay.

Death on the Cherwell was originally published in 1935 and was re-released by British Library Crime Classics in 2014 with an introduction by Stephen Booth. It is available for purchase here.

Death on the Cherwell

Death on the Cherwell

For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behaviour among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cosy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe.

The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play, and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death – and the clues that point to a fellow student.

This classic mystery novel, with its evocative setting in an Oxford women’s college, is now republished for the first time since the 1930s. Includes an introduction by Stephen Booth, award-winning crime writer.

My Review of Death on the Cherwell

Persephone Ladies College in Oxford is plunged into scandal when their bursar is found floating down the river in her own canoe – murdered.

My, my. I don’t think I’ve ever been so flummoxed by writing a book review before. I honestly have no real idea what I think to Death on the Cherwell. At times I found it less of a crime thriller and more of a social commentary of a rather elitist society.

Whilst there is a crystal clear description of the college setting, I wasn’t really able to distinguish between the undergraduates especially well, except perhaps for Draga because she is ‘foreign’. And this is my difficulty. I found many aspects of Death on the Cherwell so vividly evocative of 1930s privileged England that they are almost offensive to a modern reader. The comments about Draga being odd because she’s foreign, the rather sexist, and sometimes downright misogynistic, attitudes to women felt uncomfortable and yet I did enjoy the book.

Reading Death on the Cherwell made me think of the Famous Five and Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton in my childhood so that it evoked happy memories of reading as a child. I enjoyed that fact that there was a mystery to be solved in finding out how Bursar Denning came to have drowned but was in the canoe and I found the era fascinating. The rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge, the choosing of the correct hotel to be seen in, the references to ‘lekkers’, the correct positioning of hats and having crumpets toasted on fires in rooms all provided a vivid sense of the 1930s. The concept of propriety comes roaring through the writing so that I really don’t think I’d have survived living in the era.

I think in a way, the actual plot is subsidiary for me as a reader. I enjoyed the story, I didn’t have to think too hard and I was entertained. However, more compelling was the insight into the society of the time when Death on the Cherwell was written. Reading Death on the Cherwell as a fast-paced crime thriller of the kind with which we are now familiar might leave readers disappointed. Reading it as an intellectual exercise in looking at how crime writing has changed or as an historical snapshot of a particular decade makes it engaging and fascinating. I think it’s a book that will polarise readers. When I’ve finally made up my mind what I think I’ll let you know, but I would say, read Death on the Cherwell for yourself and make your own judgement.

About Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay, also known as M. Doriel Hay, was a British author of detective fiction and of non-fiction works on handicrafts. M. Doriel Hay was born in Potters Bar in Middlesex, England in 1894 and attended St Hilda’s College, Oxford from 1913 to 1916.

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