Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay's detective fiction seems to be making more impact now than it did on its first appearance in the 1930s. This is thanks to the British Library's very welcome decision to reprint her three long-neglected novels in their Crime Classics series. I've previously talked about The Santa Klaus Murder, and in today's post I turn my attention to the two books that preceded it, Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell. They both benefit, by the way, from nice intros by Stephen Booth, who spoke enthusiastically about them on the Forgotten Authors panel at Crimefest.

Mavis was a student at Oxford at roughly the same time as Dorothy L. Sayers, and although she was an alumna of St Hilda's, rather than Somerville, it may be that their paths crossed. Did this influence Sayers' warmly positive review of Murder Underground? I very much doubt it - Sayers was not someone who said things about books that she didn't mean, and some of her reviews of friends' work were scarily acerbic. Sayers liked "good English", and Mavis was a stylish writer - it is this that lifts her novels out of the common run of Golden Age stories, and helps to explain why the British Library have chosen to republish her books. That said, I don't rate Murder Underground as highly as her two later novels. As the title suggests, the killing of an elderly spinster takes place at a Tube station (maps are provided), and the manner of the story-telling is light and amusing. It's a pleasing period piece. The plot, and in particular the solution, are however rather slight.

Mavis created a fictional Oxford college, Persephone, plainly influence by St Hilda's, for Death on the Cherwell. Again, we have a map of the scene of the crime, and a victim who is an unlovely spinster. A group of young female students find the body of the college bursar in a canoe floating down the river - shades of the beginning of The Floating Admiral. There is a lot to enjoy in this book, and Mavis's light touch is more expertly deployed than in her debut. Again, there is a shortage of suspects (not a mistake she made in The Santa Klaus Murder, which has a dauntingly large cast) and the "surprise twist" is foreseeable. But the story is fun.

In judging this writer, and these books, I think it's important to keep in mind that she was an inexperienced novelist, and this accounts for some of the flimsiness of plot and structure. Given her fluent writing style, I think that, had she kept writing mysteries, she might have developed into a notable contributor to the genre. It was not to be - she seems to have lost interest, although she wrote non-fiction later and lived until the Seventies. But it's marvellous to see these books given a new life, in very attractive editions, and they are being very successfully marketed by the British Library. The Golden Age is in vogue at long last!


Kacper said...

I read the first few chapters of Death on the Cherwell when the reprint came out, and while I very much wanted to like the book, I had trouble staying interested. My main problem was that the four (or was it five?) students who are the focal point of the beginning of the novel were totally indistinct from each other - I'm sure Hay may have developed them and given them distinctive personalities more later in the book, but I lost interest in the characters very quickly. I'm glad you enjoyed her books, though - I will probably pick one up again at some point and be a little more patient with it. Like you, I think it's great that she's been reprinted.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Kacper. I think your criticism is not unfair, to be honest. As I say, she was really in her apprenticeship at this stage, so the early books have excellent ingredients, but don't really compare, inevitably, to the likes of Christie and co at their best. But it is wonderful to see these books being read again. There's definitely a place for them on the shelves.