#471: Minor Felonies – Jolly Foul Play (2016) by Robin Stevens

Jolly Foul Play

The fourth entry in Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series finds us returning to a very different Deepdean School for Girls to the one we last saw at the end of the opening of this series.  And this time around Christian, who blogs over at Mysteries, Short and Sweet when he’s not translating Carter Dickson novels into Swedish, has stepped in to help me tackle this one as a fellow fan of Robin Stevens’ work.

No spoilers, just some discussion, so anyone wishing to remain pure on this one is free to read on with impunity.  First, though, so plot:

It’s been quite a year for the Wells and Wong Detective Society, and Jolly Foul Play (2016) finds the girls back at Deepdean and deep into the Winter term: Bonfire Night, to be precise.  With everyone gathered on the field for the fireworks display — the school is “trying to make everything new for us this year, as though [we] can erase Miss Bell and what happened to her” — and unpopular new Head Girl Elizabeth Hurst and her five prefects ruling everyone with an iron rod as has become typical this term, the plethora of gazes directed skyward manage to overlook the murder happening right behind them.  The fireworks end, the girls turn back towards school, and someone stumbles upon the body of Elizabeth with her head bashed in…

~

JJ: Given that the appeal of this book is its laying the groundwork of classic detective tropes – clues, logic, rigour, fair play, etc  – it’s worth commending it at the very start for how soundly and securely Stevens introduces the key concepts at the heart of classic detective fiction.  Perhaps the most explicitly example of this is how, in spite of a thoroughly unlikeable victim, Daisy insists that the murderer be found because “it isn’t about the victim.  It’s justice.”  That, above almost all else, feels like the heart of a vast majority of GAD right there.

Christian: Yes, that almost feels like Stevens’s shout-out to us GA mystery lovers. 🙂  But, as discussed below, there are also distinct features about this series that make the novels noticeably non-GA…

JJ: It’s also fascinating how quick Daisy and Hazel are in accepting that the killer must be one of the Deepdean students.  A couple of Golden Age novels played the “child is the killer” twist as an act of almost pure devastation, but now it’s simply accepted almost from the off in a book written for an ostensibly 8-12 year old audience.  Plus ca change!

Christian: Yeah, you’ve got a point here. But on the other hand, W&W are children themselves. To them, I don’t think it even occurs that there might be something strange about having a murderer among their own classmates. So there are two levels here: how we as readers approach the book and how the characters themselves view things.

I think it’s also worth mentioning here that when GA mysteries were having their heyday they were mainly intended as an escape from a frightening world. It’s no wonder that authors didn’t want to introduce such stark subject matter as children’s cruelty towards each other, while nowadays, their cruel characteristics are commonly known as the subject of psychology has been more thoroughly explored.

JJ: And yet, interestingly, back when Dan and I interviewed her for the second episode of our podcast, she said that part of the appeal of writing murder mysteries set in the past was that it enabled the intended audience to feel distanced from the horror of a crime as  affecting as murder.  I don’t doubt that many books for grown-ups do the “killer child” thing and are under the impression they’re being shocking, and I also know from experience that a nu,ber of books for younger readers have both younger protagonists and younger criminals for, one supposes, relatability and dramatic tension (children vs. adults would typically only turn out one way, after all…).

Perhaps it’s just a conflation of these two things, and the fact that Robin Stevens is writing these novels with those diverging perspectives in mind and so doesn’t find it terribly shocking, but I guess I’d expect a child in the 1930s to find another child being a murderer at least a little disquieting.  You can’t help but feel that something is going to be done with the series once it reaches the Second World War, but none of the girls have that experience of widespread violence yet, and it just seemed as of they took it all a little too calmly.

Christian: I agree with you. It should be underlined again that nothing here is played for the shock value. It’s just a murder mystery story that happens to have children in all major roles.  But – and this is also important – I never really get the sense that this is a 1930s mystery (and that includes the whole series of books). It seems a bit fake, for want of a better word, and there is a larger focus on themes that I don’t think would ever be addressed.  Let’s take homosexuality or “broken families”, as they call it. Of course these “problems” existed back when, but they wouldn’t have been introduced in a YA novel by Christie, I feel certain of that!

It’s a tricky one, because it’s clearly not written in a 1930s idiom, but there’s nothing to suggest these attitudes wouldn’t have been present in 1930s society – all we know for sure is that they weren’t addressed this frankly in 1930s murder mysteries.  Hell, Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd are the closest Christie ever got to acknowledging homosexuality, right?  Equally,  I don’t think Stevens is trying to write something that reads as if it comes from the 1930s, she’s mainly giving an uncommon milieu and then having  lot of fun with the historical details.  And YA books do a lot of good work in addressing these issues head-on, and giving young people a chance to consider their own responses.

Fireworks

I sometimes get the notion that in each novel Stevens wants to highlight different parts of GA mystery investigations. In this novel the focus is on the re-enactment of the murder – which is the part of the investigation that really eliminates the suspects here – while earlier there has been more focus on clues or motives and so on. It’s more or less explicitly stated in JFP, when Hazel gets the idea that they should ignore motives since they know the prefects all have them anyway.

Huh, interesting.  So we’ve had the School Murder, the Country House Murder, the Locked Room Murder, and now the Reconstructed Crime.  Mistletoe and Murder (2016) would presumably then be the Holiday Murder, and there’s a Theatre Mystery with Death in the Spotlight (2018).  Someone mentioned before the idea that Carter Dickson’s first tranche of novels were all variations on the different impossible setups, and I’d not considered that Stevens might be doing the same thing.  Hmmm, where does she go next, then?

Perhaps this is the place to mention that Stevens is experimenting a little bit with the short stories as well. There are five of them collected in Cream Buns and Crime (2017), only one of which is actually narrated by Hazel, and that’s their first case where they find out what happened to Lavinia’s tie.

There’s one story about the Junior Pinkertons, narrated by Alexander, which is sort of a spy story, but mainly a school mystery. There’s another narrated by Beanie, set concurrently with Mistletoe and Murder when she and Kitty are celebrating Christmas together.  This is perhaps the most “normal” of all the stories – food goes missing in their house and they must find out who stole it – but it’s interesting for what we learn about Beanie (and to some extent Kitty), which makes them more compelling characters. Finally there are two stories narrated by Daisy herself, and these two go some way to explain her views and thoughts.  One is more or less a vignette with Daisy as an armchair detective, while the other is a horror/mystery hybrid. Both seem like homages to the Sherlock Holmes canon.

I neither have nor have read Cream Buns and Crime, but they sound interesting.  I remember Dan saying that ‘The Deepdean Vampire’ was an impossible crime story, too, so I look forward to getting round to the collection in due course.  I also remember when Dan and I interviewed Robin Stevens that she mentioned reading the Knox Decalogue and being aghast at the “no Chinaman” rule, which is why she made Hazel Oriental – in pure shocked response to such a weird dictum.  Though she now fully admits that she realises the intent behind what Knox was writing.

It’s interesting that she should have misunderstood that rule so completely. She discusses it quickly in a section of CBaC, but never explains the reasoning behind Knox writing that rule, which I thought was unfortunate.  Because the reasoning behind the rule itself is quite sound, I think.  Still, Hazel is a good character, so something good came out of that misunderstanding!

BTW, don’t go in expecting “Deepdean Vampire” to be an impossible mystery. There’s a tiny, tiny bit that is described as impossible, but it’s very minor and plays hardly any role in the solution of the mystery.

Fireworks

To get back to Jolly Foul Play, the conversations the Detective Society have about the case throughout seem to be a deliberate attempt to upscale the rigour of the investigation, with Hazel noting at one point “[W]e could not discount information just because it seemed unlikely.  We had done that before to our cost”, and Binny being dismissed initially on account of her being a younger sister and so seen as an irritant rather than someone who could have valuable information.  While the investigation doesn’t necessarily end up following GAD expectations, shall we say, this is again a case of building in the history of the genre, and something it’s great to see.

I agree here. I think it also stems from the decision to include the other girls in the dorm in the investigation – it makes it necessary (mainly for Daisy) to show how an investigation should be done and to impose some sense of order on the whole thing. She definitely doesn’t want the other girls to look down on the whole undertaking!

And there’s that deliberate contrasting between the Detective Society and the prefects: Daisy makes the Detective Society do what she says, and Elizabeth makes the prefects do what she says.  It’s an interesting comment on cliques and leaders and the people we’re attracted to, though of course it pays not to look into it too deeply.

Yep, I also reflected on that. And also on the obliviousness of Daisy that she in some ways is much the same as Elizabeth. Daisy tries to handwave this a bit in one of the stories in CBaC…  

So it’s a shame that the final reveal comes about purely because the killer does something for no reason other than to provide a final clue that they are indeed the killer.  Until that point, this looked like something more interesting was on the cards, but it felt a bit like there was no other way to finish it and so they had to drop in a final clue because there were 20 pages left and everything needed to be resolved.  I mean, up until that point they were getting away with it!

We’re absolutely on the same page here! I found the revelation of the murderer quite disappointing. The killer just suddenly appears, threatening Binny and the other girls who have no idea at all that she’s the bad guy.  However, I think the clueing in general is the main disappointment, because there really isn’t anything that points to the murderer before this moment.  In fact, it was easy to accept the red herring murderer simply because there was absolutely nothing that could indicate that she was NOT the murderer.   

I do think that, with the clear understanding of the purpose of an investigations demonstrated so well, it’s a genuine shame that the investigation only really eliminates one person through witness testimony (which, given the circumstances, could have easily been faked…the notion of collusion is never considered, right?) and then everyone else is cleared at the last minute because the killer gives themself away.  The whole “reconstruction” is impressively detailed, but ends up leading nowhere.

Yeah, and that kinda speaks against my theory above that Stevens wants to highlight different types of mysteries. Or at least it means that this particular topic isn’t handled as well as it could be.

I’d say the latter – the consideration of who is doing what when by the bonfire must have taken a lot of working out, so that’s surely the point around which everything else hangs, but then it turns out that it’s difficult to do that sort of psychological deduction.  To summon the ghost of Agatha Christie again, even she chuffed it up in Cards on the Table (1936).  In fact, that’s a near-perfect parallel: a group of people, any one of who could have committed a murder in plain sight, a detective collective going around and gathering clues, occasionally pooling resources and impressions, and then an ending which throws most of that out of the window and simply chooses a shortcut to point the finger of accusation.  Good heavens, how did I miss that?!

It’s been too long since I read Cards on the Table, so I can’t really comment on your observation. But you may well have a point there.

But in CBaC, Stevens tells us readers some of the inspirations she had for each of the books in the series. She doesn’t mention Cards on the Table for Jolly Foul Play, instead naming the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” – our murder victim in JFP is based on the titular character there – and the 2004 classic (Stevens’s word, not mine!) film, Mean Girls. Take that for what it’s worth…

Mean Girls certainly is a classic.  Anyone saying otherwise will have a fight on their hands.

Fireworks

On to  a more personal observation: Daisy Wells is mildly autistic, right? She’s clearly not as severe a diagnosis as Ted in Stevens’ The Guggenheim Mystery (2017), and I might be more sensitive to these things as I have a similar diagnosis myself, but I do think that there have been too many instances of Daisy showing such traits that this must be a conclusion Stevens wants us to make.

No doubt, but Daisy is actually the less interesting of the two, I feel.  Hazel does a lot of reflecting on “the old me” and how she’s changed over that year of three (!) murder investigations, and Daisy seems to be the one who expects nothing to change and so must herself remain a fixed point.  I suppose the Watson has always had some internal life – even Watson himself got married while Holmes remained constant.  It’s difficult to really get a sense of her beyond ‘Daisy detects and will stop at nothing to achieve this’; and this is after we’ve spent a whole book around her somewhat fractious family!  I’m hoping we get a bit more of a sense of her as the series develops.

I don’t know if I agree that Hazel is the more interesting character, but she is by far the one you can relate to more and understand her motivations. And as I mentioned, we do get to know more of Daisy’s internal life through the two short stories in CBaC.

Cool, I shall look forward to those, in that case.  To be four books into a series and to feel so uncertain about the central detective is a little weird.  But I prefer this over Daisy being some sort of aspirational figure – we know from Hhazel’s perspective in Murder Most Unladylike (2014) how appealing Daisy can seem, and I’d like to see the oddness in her played up more, or at least given a little more substance.

As a conclusion, I think this was probably the entry that I liked the least so far. Too many coincidences and things that just fall into the Detective Society’s lap. Actually, this is one comment Stevens makes in CBaC in regard to one of Knox’s Rules – that she doesn’t mind luck in the course of the detectives’ investigation.  And that’s one of those things that I disagree with her on…

I’d like this more if the clue-dropping and investigation mad more meaning come the end.  This feels like the first book where it’s really just been a sort of “Oh, hell, I don’t know…” dropping of a massive clanger just to pull it all together.  The high point for me remains First Class Murder (2015), but I liked the milieu and the general pace of this one well enough.

They’ve all been nice reads, but I think the mystery aspect was the disappointing thing with this entry. The mystery plots were better handled in the previous instalments. I hope it’s just a blip and that things will pick up with the next novel in the series again.

The stories in CBaC – some of which were written after this novel – were charming but relatively inconsequential. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, and I think they adhere more closely to what we’d expect from a GA mystery investigation – more clues, more deductions, and less luck. So that gives me hope!

~

The Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens:

Novels

1. Murder Most Unladylike, a.k.a. Murder is Bad Manners (2014)
2. Arsenic For Tea, a.k.a. Poison is Not Polite (2015)
3. First Class Murder (2015)
4. Jolly Foul Play (2016)
5. Mistletoe and Murder (2016)
6. A Spoonful of Murder (2018)
7. Death in the Spotlight (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]

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