Death on the Cherwell - Mavis Doriel Hay

So much unfulfilled potential.

An Oxford setting, a mysterious death, college intrigue, and an underlying issue that is worthy of discussion and that would still have been a taboo at the time of writing. Seriously, there was so much in this book that should have been the foundation of an excellent book.

However, the potential was spoiled by TSTL characters that dominated the first half of the book for no reason – absolutely none! – and was made worse by (if that is possible with TSTL characters) by pretty explicit racism. I know, I know, it was acceptable at the time…yadda, yadda.

But here is the thing…it contributed absolutely nothing to the story. What was the point? It only made the characters more stupid than they were already. Tho, granted, that was a feat on the part of the author that I had not expected.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the book was published in the same year and has a very similar setting to Gaudy Night, which is one of the best books I have read this year and is now firmly placed on the list of my all-time favourite books.

Where Sayers showed us how to write a Golden Age mystery set in Oxford, Hay showed us how not to do it.

If it had not been for familiarity with Oxford from either personal experience or other sources, I am not sure that Oxford setting really came to the fore in Hay’s book. Sure, we have punting, a river, and a fairly nondescript college, but where is the description of the city? Where is the atmosphere? The closest I found to an Oxford description was when two of the students discuss Blackwell’s bookshop. That was all.

Just as ubiquitous yellow fog does not create a Victorian London setting, there is more to Oxford than Blackwell’s and punting.

I expected more.

There are issues with the mystery, too.

Again, the main characters were too immature – childish even – to pass for first-year students. The police were too all-knowing and presumptive to pass for detectives.

The real issue I have, however, is that the actual interesting plot twist is left to the last chapters of the book and is not actually used to discuss the intricacies of the deficiencies in the mores of the time. Sure, it would have been a topic that was unmentionable at the time, but if the author didn’t want to discuss it and the hypocrisy around it, why would she use it as the underlying reason for the entire story?

I expected more. Much more.

2* (out of 5*)

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