Category Archives: Hay Mavis Doriel

Murder Underground: Mavis Doriel Hay (1934)

“Whatever you may feel about your relations, you don’t like to hear of them strangled with a dog leash”

In Mavis Doriel Hay’s novel Murder Underground, the story focuses on a handful of people who knew the elderly victim, Miss Pongleton. Most of those people were her fellow residents at The Frampton, a London boarding house. Miss Pongleton, or’Pongle’ was a difficult woman. She changed her will constantly, vacillating between her nephew Basil, and her niece Beryl Sanders. Beryl, who’s engaged to Gerry Plasher, a young stockbroker, has money of her own, but Basil, an unsuccessful author, falls into one scrape after another and desperately needs the money.

On the morning of Miss Pongleton’s death, she was on her way, via the underground to an appointment with a “cheap” dentist, Mr. Crampit, but before she could arrive at her destination, she was strangled, from behind, by a dog leash. The leash belongs to Miss Pongleton’s elderly asthmatic terrier, Tuppy, as it turns out, so that indicates that the murderer was either a resident of The Frampton or someone who had access to the victim’s belongings. The murder is complicated by the fact that Miss Pongleton was in possession of a stolen brooch that she may or may not have intended to turn into the police. The police assume that the man who stole the brooch murdered Miss Pongleton.

Further complications can be found in the fact that Basil, Gerry, and Bob, the man who stole the brooch, all encountered Miss Pongleton on the steps to the underground–all around the time she as murdered. Did she encounter a fourth acquaintance?

murder-undergound

The police are far in the background in this tale. Some of that can be explained by the fact that they think the murderer is Bob. Most of the story (and the author’s focus) is concerned with the residents of the boarding house and the antics of Basil. Basil has a lot to hide and his antics, which are aimed at making him look innocent, have the opposite result. He really is an idiot, and although he’s portrayed as an amiable fool, looking at his exploits in perspective, he’s really not nice.

Tuppy is distraught without his mistress, and although Pongle is portrayed unpleasantly here, she loved her dog. Basil who calls the dog alternately a poodle and a pug, can’t even get Tuppy’s breed straight. Once it is known that a portion of Miss Pongleton’s money is directed towards the care of her dog, suddenly more people become interested in Tuppy’s welfare. Oh the depravity of human nature. …

The residents of the boarding house are a motley bunch thrown together by circumstance, and they include a couple of young women, the “pompous” Mr. Slocomb, a female crime novelist (who becomes our amateur sleuth) and a retiree, Mr Bland who keeps scrapbooks:

Many of them were yellow with age and most of them referred to crimes. Kindly and tolerant in his relationship with his fellow men, Mr. Blend would gloat over the details of crimes with a chill, inhuman joy. The truth was that he did not regard them as part of life but merely as a form of art, just as many humane people wallow deliciously in the gruesome “murder mysteries” of fiction. 

In contrast to the viciousness of the crime, a gentle thread of humour runs throughout the tale. Some of that comes from the residents or “inmates” of the boarding house, the nosiness of landladies, the clash of the tabloid press as they lay siege to the fragile gentility of the characters, but most of it comes from Basil’s pathologically, idiotic missteps:

Well, I went quietly, as the saying is–as quietly as their car would take me, but it was one of those noisy popping brutes. There they had what they call an identification parade, I think–I’m getting awfully good at all the crime lingo. I was lined up with a lot of others–and, by Jove, it gives you a pretty poor opinion of yourself to see the specimens that the police pick out as being roughly the same type as yourself!

I guessed the identity of the murderer almost immediately, but enjoyed the gentle humour here nonetheless. I wondered if the author intended us to see Miss Pongleton as negatively as the other characters saw her, and conversely whether we were supposed to see Basil as quite the way his family saw him. Perhaps the flaws of these characters are supposed to be seen as relative to the viciousness of the murderer. Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote three crime novels in her lifetime: Murder Underground (1934), Death on the Cherwell (1935), and The Santa Klaus Murder (1936).

Review copy

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Death on the Cherwell: Mavis Doriel Hay (1935)

“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.”

death on the cherwell

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.”

Review copy

 

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The Santa Klaus Murder: Mavis Doriel Hay (1936)

Mavis Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder is a traditional country house murder mystery–so that means a limited number of suspects, but in the case of this novel there are multiple narrators as various characters give their versions of events.
It’s 1935, another Christmas gathering at Flaxmere, the country estate of the indomitable Sir Osmond Melbury–a man who rules his large family with an iron hand. Now aged and infirm after a stroke, Sir Melbury is no less formidable. He has five children–four daughters and a son along with various in-laws and grandchildren. Everyone descends on Flaxmere once again for the traditional Christmas holiday.

Sir Osmond’s sister, his former housekeeper, Aunt Mildred is convinced that no good can possibly result from confining the family members together under one roof, and she’s proved right when her brother is found dead in his study. In terms of the family fortunes, this is a delicate time, and everyone stands to benefit from the old man’s death in some way. His youngest daughter Jennifer wants to marry Philip Cheriton, the man she loves, while her father pushes and actually invites another suitor for Christmas, Oliver Witcombe. It’s a sign of Sir Osmond’s character that he invites Witcombe for Christmas as not only is this a blatant declaration of the fact he’s ignoring Jennifer’s feelings but it’s also an indication of how he thrives on tension and the awkward, “strained,” atmopshere. Jennifer, engaged now for several months,  plans to defy her father even though this would mean that she’d be cut from the will. Then there’s the eldest daughter, Hilda, who defied her father and married an artist for love years ago, and now she’s a widow, living in meagre circumstances, with a grown daughter who needs a university education. In contrast to Hilda, Edith, Sir Osmond’s second daughter, abandoned the man she loved in order to please her father by marrying Sir David Evershot. The couple have no children and this may be explained by the rumours of hereditary madness in Sir David’s family.

the santa klaus murderTo complicate matters, Sir Osmond has an eminently efficient and attractive secretary and housekeeper: Miss Grace Portisham. Several of Sir Osmond’s children are concerned that their father could change the will in his housekeeper’s favour. She has slowly and silently made changes at Flaxmere–changes some of the children, Edith, Eleanor, and George, “like birds of prey,” resent:

They found, too, that rooms had been done up in new color schemes and there were various innovations in household organization. Edith expressed her disapproval of the changes and hinted at a lack of good taste. Always Sir Osmond poo-poohed her criticism, boasted how economically everything had been done, and lauded Miss Portisham.

Edith and Eleanor and George became increasingly anxious about Grace Portisham. She was a schemer–and how far was she prepared to go? They would gladly have seized any opportunity to discredit her, but she was so discreet, so tactful, that she seemed invulnerable. Each Christmas they arrived in a greater state of anxiety unalloyed by the obvious facts that Miss Portisham greatly increased the comfort of life at Flaxmere and was never seen by anyone to presume above her station.

There’s a crisis looming at Flaxmere; Jennifer’s older siblings want her to remain there and keep an eye on Miss Portisham, nicknamed, “the portent,” but Jennifer plans to marry her fiancé and leave, financial consequences be damned. Will Miss Portisham ‘take over’ Flaxmere? Is it possible that Sir Osmond might consider marriage to Miss Portisham? Of course all of these concerns end, abruptly, when Sir Osmond is murdered.

Sir Osmond isn’t a particularly nice person, and there’s the sense that he squashes independent action in his children. Jennifer is devoted to the Women’s Institutes, “but these activities were hampered by Sir Osmond, who disapproved of what he considered the Bolshevist tendencies of the movement.” Consequently, Jennifer has learned to keep “her real opinions and interests to herself.” Jennifer’s fiancé, Cheriton, says Sir Osmond “had a genius for awkwardness, I would back him to arouse envy, hatred, and uncharitableness in any perfectly harmonious party of people in less than twenty-four hours” :

He always seemed to thrive on the atmosphere of distrust and discomfort which he had such a knack of creating and although the Melbury family was riddled with feuds and jealousies, these were always conducted in a polite manner, with sarcasm and innuendo but never a healthy row.

The chapters told from the viewpoints of various guests are a nice twist and author Mavis Doriel Hay manages to convey a different tone to each of these chapters as they pave the way to the crime. Philip Cheriton’s chatty account gives a nice history of the family and various relationships, and this is in wonderful contrast to Aunt Mildred’s fussy, critical narrative. We see that stubbornness runs in the Melbury blood, for Aunt Mildred, who helped steer most of the Melbury children towards ‘suitable’ marriages, now sees the consequences of her work but refuses to admit that perhaps she was wrong.

There’s a clue thrown out very early in the book which signals the solution, and while The Santa Klaus Murder has nothing new to offer to the genre, it is an enjoyable, seasonal read.

The book comes complete with a plan of the ground floor of Flaxmere House and a cast of characters.

Review copy. This is another British Library Crime Classic from Poisoned Pen Press.

The Santa Klaus Murder was also reviewed by Ali of Heavenali

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