It’s nearly 12 months since, at the Bodies from the Library conference in 2017, Dan casually mentioned that one of the Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens was a locked room mystery and so started me on a mildly-obsessive YA spiral that has taken in the detective talents of Enid Blyton, the beginning phases of Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, a selection of classic and modern juvenile mysteries, and, of course, an interview with Robin Stevens herself at the beginning of our podcast adventure.
Whew. What a year.
And so, as I wrap up this month of modern YA mystery Tuesday posts — more are on my shelves and will be finding their way onto the blog before too long, fear not the twelve of you who read these posts — I return to where it all started, with Robin Stevens’ debut. And the debut itself starts in the best possible way: we’re saved this being a “Hazel Wong, fresh off the boat from Hong Kong, must fit into 1930s British society and happens to meet the Honourable Daisy Wells at boarding school and they somehow starts detecting together” by-the-numbers origin, and instead the Wells and Wong Detective Society is in full swing, having already solved The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie. Though, as Hazel notes on the first page, “the solution to this new case” — being the murder of Science mistress Miss Bell and the subsequent vanishing of her body — “may be more complicated”.
And so you get a perfectly-pitched 1930s boarding school mystery, with suspicious adult behaviour — some of which, inevitably, turns out not to be so suspicious after all — and great pains gone to in order to detect where firstly no-one believe there’s anything to detect and secondly every moment of our detectives’ day should see them somewhere else. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and recalls a lot of modern crime writing for the sometimes-sidelined detection element rather than classic detective fiction that puts the plot front and centre, but what works so well in its favour is the milieu Robin Stevens creates. In short, the young girls who populate Deepdean School for Girls feel very much part of that sort of juvenile, isolated, and slightly ignorant of the real world setting in a beautifully effortless way:
Lallie Thompson-Bates, a day girl from the second form, was telling anyone who would listen that her mother had spoken to a close friend who had seen a woman looking very much like Miss Bell in a shop in Abingdon, buying azaleas. Another girls who knew all about the language of flowers said that azaleas meant ‘Take care!’, and there was great excitement at that — until Lallie admitted that she had meant to say hydrangeas. Since hydrangeas turned out to mean ‘frigidity’, this did not seem right at all.
It is in moments like this that the book really excels — the handyman Jones who “gets tidied away on open days and whenever benefactors are about”, or the not fully-grasped but still seen as scandalous implications of two female teachers having a “spare bedroom” in their flat, or Hazel being seen as “the East in human form and therefore untrustworthy” following fervid rumours that criminous gangs must somehow be involved in Miss Bell’s disappearance. Stevens rarely misses a beat to make her school feel like the gaggle of gossip, teenage bragging and one-upmanship, and baseless speculation that would inevitably run rampant in such a place.
Of course, it is also a book about detecting the guilty party, and so there is much discussing (and tabulating) of alibis and motives, and a steady stream of physical evidence — blood-stained clothing, mysterious shoe prints, broken windows — that will slowly accrue increasing significance and point towards the guilty party. This part is also a huge amount of fun, and enlivened by Hazel’s obsession with extant detective fiction and the contortions often found therein:
“[A]lthough in books they might have done it by constructing a dastardly long-range missile out of a trombone, three plant pots, and the gym vaulting horse, in real life that sort of thing does seem beyond the bounds of possibility.”
Alongside this, it is also an origin story, with Hazel charting the development of her friendship with Daisy — cannily giving us only the sections we really need of the book I feared this could easily be — from her early besotment with the winsome Daisy who appears at first “absolutely made from the England of my books and paintings” but steadily emerges as something altogether less expected.
The Honourable Daisy Wells is a most interesting character, and not always a likeable one. There’s a streak of young madamish arrogance in her a mile wide and, while excellent work is done with Hazel’s occasional references to Daisy’s deeper character, taking a drink every time she calls Hazel “silly”, “stupid”, “a chump” or “an idiot” would result in sizeable inebriation indeed. There’s undoubtedly a narrative reason for this — I hesitate to give too much away, but Stevens is deliberately making her a slightly prissy and smug presence, in stark contrast to a recent experience — and it’s refreshing to see someone not bending over backwards to make their series character immediately charming and wonderful. To commit that fully to the process of developing the series is a very brave choice, and one that pays off very well indeed.
All told, then, this is a very good start to the series, and it’s to my shame that it took me this long to get around to it (in fairness, there are a lot of books out there). I shall not leave it a year before finding out what comes next for Wells and Wong; expect more when Minor Felonies returns in a couple of months.
The Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens:
1. Murder Most Unladylike (2014)
2. Arsenic For Tea (2015)
3. First Class Murder (2015)
4. Jolly Foul Play (2016)
5. Mistletoe and Murder (2016)
6. A Spoonful of Murder (2018)
Novellas and Collections
1. The Case of the Blue Violet (2016) [ebook novella]
2. The Case of the Deepdean Vampire (2016) [ebook novella]
3. Cream Buns and Crime [ss] (2017)
4. The Case of the Missing Treasure (2018) [Waterstones exclusive novella]