Last week, I wasn’t expecting a Christmas mystery and arguably didn’t get one; but for the week of Christmas itself I wanted to be on firmer ground.
Earlier this year, Robin Steven published Death Sets Sail (2020), the ninth and final novel in her Murder Most Unladylike series. Add to this the fact that — despite being responsible for getting me reading juvenile detective fiction (I’d still like a better term for it, because that sounds judge-y and it’s not meant to…) — I’ve not read anything in the series of a while now, and this Christmas-themed entry, for which the time now seems perfect, came to mind. Because it’s Christmas in a few days. In case you didn’t know.
This fifth entry in the series sees teenage sleuths Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong head to a gelid, frosty Cambridge to spend Christmas with Daisy’s undergraduate brother Bertie. It is also, Hazel is very excited to note, a chance for the girls to meet up again with Alexander — who helped them in First Class Murder (2014) — and to meet for the first time his friend George, with whom he has formed a detective society called the Junior Pinkertons. The girls have differing perspectives on this meeting — Hazel is giddy just at the thought of Alexander, whereas Daisy resents what she sees as the intrusion of the Pinkertons into their to previous cases — and it provides a nice tension at the heart of the opening of the book. The series may be designed to be comforting and familiar, but you don’t want to get too cozy…
Cambridge, and Maudlin College thereof, will then be the background for much merriment in the run-up to Christmas, with the only mark against comity being twins Chummy and Donald Melling — the former missing out by a mere five minutes on the fortune that Donald is due to inherit upon achieving his majority on Christmas day itself. With the boisterous, expansive Chummy living up to his name, and Donald a surly presence in his brother’s shadow, feeling is generally that the younger Melling twin would be a more appropriate recipient of the wealth…and if you couldn’t spot the murder coming at this stage of the narrative, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
One of the things Stevens does very well indeed in these mysteries is restrict the focus to a small subset of people in a fixed locality so as to better illustrate the problem. In the genre’s Golden Age, this was frequently a means of misleading the reader into a false group of suspects so that an outsider could be unveiled in the penultimate chapter and knock several pairs of socks clean across the room, but Stevens uses it more as a framing device: using the steady comparison of physical clues and suspect testimony to erode the list until one name remains…and there’s yer guilty party. And I’m not complaining; the detection here feels naturalistic, no mean feat given the curbs the girls frequently have to circumvent, and the conclusions reached inevitable in light of the circumstances presented. Who could ask for more in a murder mystery?
Your typical juvenile sleuth operates as we know, in an adult-dominated world, and so the barriers to investigation are fairly common ones. Being set in the 1930s gives Stevens a chance to examine, too, the treatment of women with regards further education in the era: not just is St. Lucy’s College, for the female students, a depressingly under-funded and hastily-constructed establishment, but Daisy and Hazel have no freedom to explore the men’s college of Maudlin with the same impunity as before.
We did not have the same freedoms as Alexander and George. We would be stopped, and curbed, and told where to go. From now on we would have to use all our ingenuity to discover the simplest things.
Such a consideration could, in lesser hands, presage a plethora of 21st century-infused attitudes rightly decrying such a blinkered view of women and their role in society. As it is, Hazel is the perfect avatar through which to view this because she already considers herself an outsider (“I have become so used to tucking the un-English parts of myself away, politely pretending that they do not exist.”) and this news would, of course, not be new to her — “I suppose it is only one of the long list of things women are not allowed to do” she reflects at one point, and you can hear the bone weary exhaustion in that acceptance. And yet there’s also a kiddish enchantment at times, where her outsider status is almost the means by which wonders are revealed to her (“It never stops amazing me, the way the English all know who each are, without ever needing to look it up.”), walking the line between put-upon and whining effortlessly., without ever straying into the latter (well, okay, maybe a little with all the “I’m so short and Daisy’s so pretty, Alexander will never like me” stuff, but I guess I’m not the target audience there).
The curbs matter from a narrative sense in two ways: firstly because of the difficulty in accessing clues where the police and college staff have every right to exclude them, but also because the to detective societies decided to go head-to-head in solving the series of small felonies that presage some larger disaster.
“No guessing, no fudging answers, and no forcing confessions. Proper interviews with witnesses and rigorous examination of clues Agreed?”
For the most part, this is what Steven achieves — a solid examination of the physical evidence, plus the clever use of interviews as seen in the likes of Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outer mysteries to get the adults in the know to disclose the information the sleuths need (“After all, grown-ups always underestimate children…”). One scene in particular, involving the investigation of a corpse, is striking for how it pushes the type of behaviour usually encountered in mysteries for this age group, and has just enough discomfort (“Detecting is all very well when it is about the puzzle, but when it truly becomes about a body I like is far less.”) to feel genuine and suspenseful.
A few subplots — such as the female undergraduate Amanda, who has been allocated to the girls as chaperone, being too busy to supervise them while also being unwilling to go to Maudlin — tie in neatly, and Hazel’s reflections on how Bertie can be friendly with a peevish, trenchant bore like Chummy shows an element of maturity and awareness creeping into their youthful world that all the murders going couldn’t educate them about. With five cases under their belt, this has become easily one of the most interesting series in the annals of juvenile mystery — using the unexpected developments of the genre at its peak to explore contemporary issues and concerns for today’s young people, and being hugely entertaining in the process. Hopefully it will not be so long before I return to see what the Wells and Wong Detective Society gets up to next…