Title: Death on the Cherwell
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay
First published in 1935; republished by British Library Publishing on 2016
Genre: Golden Age Mystery
For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College at Oxford, there are two great evils to be feared – unladylike behavior by her students and bad publicity for the college. Her world is thrown upside down when a group of four first-year undergraduates find the bursar’s body in a floating canoe.
The police assume it was a student prank gone wrong but the four girls who found the body suspect foul play. There is one particular classmate who might have been involved in the bursar’s death. The girls decide to take matter in their own hands and investigate.
Mavis Doriel Hay wrote just three detective fiction in her writing career. (The rest were on rural handicrafts.) Death on the Cherwell, published in 1935, is a detective fiction featuring four undergraduates of Oxford women’s college.
Daphne Loveridge, Gwyneth Pane and Nina Harson gather on the roof of a small boat-house of Persephone College. They are waiting for their friend Sally Watson for the purpose of inaugurating the Lode League. Sally is late as she has additional classes with Mr. Mort. Sally arrives a few minutes after 4, bringing five rings with her – one for each of the girls, and the fifth for ‘Lode.’
They see a canoe floating by. Initially, they think it is an empty canoe but when they peek in, they find the bursar lying down. They manage to pull the canoe to the banks and pull the unconscious bursar, Myra Denning, out of the canoe. Ms. Denning is completely drenched and unresponsive. While one of the girls performs CPR, the other runs to the principal and tells her to call a doctor. It is too late though. Ms. Denning is dead.
The girls wonder if Ms. Denning drowned and at the last minute, somehow made her way to the canoe. That doesn’t sound, does it? A dead person cannot jump into a canoe! The police are called in and Inspector Wythe is in charge of the case. It is initially believed that a group of students from the men’s college must have played a prank on Ms. Denning and when she drowned, they must have panicked and left. But this doesn’t explain how she was on the canoe… and her hat is still missing.
I really loved the academic setting and the four undergraduates wanting to solve the case – out of sheer curiosity. Sally’s sister is coming to town so she takes the sister’s help too. Pamela Exe, Ms. Denning’s niece and Betty (Sally’s sister) had met once. Betty decides to bring Pamela over for a few days – after all, the poor girl is now all alone in the world.
Meanwhile, the girls wonder if the nasty Mr. Lond had something to do with the murder. Mr. Lond’s ancestors owned the island on which the women’s college was built. Mr. Lond hated women and when the college staff used the path connecting the college and Mr. Lond’s house, he made sure the ‘trespassers’ knew how annoyed he was. Ms. Denning was stubborn and purposely used the path to annoy Mr. Lond.
There’s also a Yugoslavian student named Draga who had a tiff with Ms. Denning the day before her murder/death. Ms. Denning called Draga a pig – turns out, calling someone a pig in Yugoslavia is considered an insult. Well, Yugoslavia or elsewhere, calling someone a pig is an insult! Period.
When an Inspector named Braydon arrives from Scotland Yard, things pick up pace. The girls have started what they call ‘Lond Patrol.’ They take turns to keep an eye on Mr. Lond’s house. Braydon somehow learns the girls are dabbling in amateur sleuthing and he talks to them, asking if they found anything new.
The identity of the ‘killer’ was not surprising. The clues were all there and it was quite easy to identify the ‘perp.’ Well, I say ‘killer’ and ‘perp’ in quotes because… if you love to play detective, you will know the reason. 😛
If you are looking for a light read, you might want to give Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay a try. Not much of mystery or suspense but the banter and the girls trying to gather clues is certainly worth a read.