This review was inspired by a twelve-year-old girl, waiting at the bookshop counter, and enthusiastically clutching a book to her school blazer. When I asked, she proudly showed me the title: MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE by Robin Stevens, and her enthusiasm is why I came away with a copy for myself (and for my bookshelf for occasional young visitors.)
MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE, a well-paced and well-plotted crime novel is set in the 1930’s. This title takes place at Deepdean School for Girls, echoing the traditional jolly-lacrosse-sticks boarding school stories of that era. Stevens recreates a world of bells, bun-breaks, tuck-boxes, dorms, pranks and pashes, along with spinsterish teachers and the general social obligation to be “a good sport”.
The plot is, basically, one of those "who done it" puzzles, familiar to readers of Agatha Christie. The novel nips along, full of suspense, bravery and crime-solving but I felt that a particular strength of the book is that Robin Stevens does not hide the bleakness of boarding school life, nor the racism and snobbery of that life and era, possibly hinting that such matters still exist in society now.
The two third-year heroines, Hazel Wong and the Honourable Daisy Wells, have formed a secret Detective Agency. Although Daisy, with her blonde hair, wide blue eyes and energy on the lacrosse field, appears a tall and typical English Rose, she artfully conceals a Sherlockian intelligence and ruthlessness.
By way of contrast, short, thoughtful Hazel Wong, with her long brown hair and dark eyes, has come all the way from Hong Kong. Sent by her wealthy father so she will have a "good English education", Hazel discovers that she must learn about the often uncomfortable “English way” of doing things, along with coping with the cold weather. Hazel becomes Daisy's carefully observant Watson, recording their investigations in her Casebook, and we follow the twists and turns of the plot - and the oddities of school life - through her eyes and experiences.
Daisy is admirably impulsive but shy, reliable Hazel is the one with whom the reader identifies and sympathizes. The plot starts promptly: Hazel returns alone to the “haunted” gym for her pullover but finds the body of Miss Bell lying below the balcony. However, when Hazel and Daisy return, the science-mistress's corpse has gone. Although the headmistress reports that Miss Bell has been called away, the girls know better and set out to prove it. The short chapters whip along from one excitement to another and, for those who occasionally need to check up on who is who, or where, a helpful plan of the school grounds and list of characters is included at the front of the volume.
In true thirties-detective style, Hazel and Daisy draw up a list of suspect staff, examine their motives and whereabouts, employ clever stratagems (and lies) and pursue the case to the most surprising end. I found this book a very satisfying read, with a healthy display of bold spirits and curiosity!
MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE is the first in a series of four crime novels (followed by ARSENIC FOR TEA, FIRST CLASS MURDER and JOLLY FOUL PLAY) and although the plots do have something slightly predictable in the solution, they all offer enjoyable escapism for 10- 13 year old readers, despite scary moments and neatly murderous contents.
(A very small worry: I am not sure that, without the enthusiasm of my bookshop friend, I’d have come away with the book. The cover art does fit the period and genre extremely well but I am not sure the covers sell the series well enough on their own. I really am hoping I am wrong here!)
Robin Stevens is also the author of one of the twelve stories in the highly-praised MYSTERY & MAYHEM anthology. She also reports on her blog that she is currently working on Book Five of the MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE series. Jolly good show there, Stevens!
Review by Penny Dolan.
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