“But look here, aren’t there some people called police–or don’t you have them in Oxford?”
Death on the Cherwell from author Mavis Doriel Hay is a light-hearted crime novel centered on the murder of the much disliked Miss Denning, the Bursar of the all-female Persephone College in Oxford. The book’s excellent introduction from Stephen Booth gives an overview of the author’s life, stating that Persephone College is recognizable as St Hilda’s–one of two women’s colleges on the Cherwell. Mavis Doriel Hay attended St Hilda’s at a time when women were not “eligible for degrees,” and as Booth notes, “in the circumstance, it is understandable that one of the themes of Death on the Cherwell is a prejudice against women.”
The novel opens on a January afternoon with several female undergraduates gathering for a meeting on the top of the boathouse roof. This opening sets the tone for the story with its emphasis on the enthusiasm and energy of the young women:
Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human.
Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood-earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again with the advantage of an undimmed memory of their former lives. Inspirited by their knowledge of the ways in which authority may be mocked, they are at the same time quite ridiculously uplifted by the easy possibility of achieving local fame in the limited university world during the next few years.
As the young women, with their ringleader Sally, gather on the roof of the boathouse, the Bursar’s canoe comes floating down the Cherwell. At first, the canoe appears to be empty, and sensing something wrong, the undergraduates pull the boat to shore. The Bursar is lying in the canoe–dead. She’s been drowned but then placed back in the canoe.
The genial Detective Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard arrives to solve the crime, and while his methods of detection are fairly standard, Sally and her friends decide to do some sleuthing of their own–ostensibly to ‘protect’ the “Yugo-Slav” student Draga, who stands out as eccentric, ‘different,’ and a suspect. Draga, though, is clearly a pretext for Sally and her friends to become involved in this pleasant romp of a murder mystery.
The book bogs down a bit as the inspector tries to establish alibis, but overall the story is well done. There are references to Oxford of the 30s (Blackwell whose idea “was to run a bookshop and actually to sell books”), “late leave,” and the social relationships between male and female students. There’s one very funny scene in which a male student tries to plug his poetry book using various tactics, there’s also an insanely misogynistic character and many references regarding attitudes to women.
“Why do most women get murdered?” asked Dumps.
“Unfortunately they don’t,” Coniston informed him.
“But most of those who do–“
“Intrigue!” Owen hazarded. “Some wretched man gets involved with too many of them and has to remove one or two.”