I bought Stevens’ book about ten minutes after I’d discovered its existence (via Daisy Johnson and Farah Mendlesohn, who both had good-to-gleeful things to say about it). So obvious was it that it was for me that a friend asked if I was sure I hadn’t written it myself. I hadn’t, I’m not good at fiction.
Part of the reason this was such a wonderful discovery is that I’ve been in a school story murder mystery mood for a few months now. I reread the Blake and Crispin books mentioned below, two Gladys Mitchell books (I discuss Tom Brown’s Body below. Laurels Are Poison does not have a non-white student; it does have an Amusing Black Servant. Fun times!), and Gaudy Night. And earlier this year I read Missee Lee, which is not a murder mystery or a school story, but which also has that incongruous figure, the brown student who worships everything English and tries so hard. And I cringed a bit when Hazel speaks about her family’s obsession with England; it’s heavy and unsubtle and one of the few places the book slips up for me. But for the rest of the book, the ways in which Hazel does not fit that stock character type came as such a relief.
Plus, how nice to have a prominent character (okay, the murder victim, but she wasn’t murdered for this reason at least?) be bisexual, and have no one within the book’s universe be surprised or puzzled.
From this weekend’s column.
I am a very limited crime fiction reader, and I know what I like. Amateur detectives, not much gore, a focus instead on the web of individual human dramas that make up the small community (golden age detective fiction is very fond of small communities) and a comparatively low stakes (though not for the victims, presumably) approach to murder. There’s a reason they call more modern iterations of this genre “cosy crime”. It’s soup on a cold day, or an airconditioned room in summer; at least as far as any of these comforting things can be built upon violent death.
For the lover of school stories (and readers of this column know that I am one), the detective novel set in a school or college is particularly magical. And so much great crime fiction has this setting. There’s Edmund Crispin’s wonderful Love Lies Bleeding (which combines crime, a school setting and Shakespeare and therefore almost deserves a genre of its own); Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. John Le Carré ventures partway into the genre with A Murder of Quality. The first of Cecil Day-Lewis’ Nigel Strangeways novels, A Question of Proof, has a school setting as well. And I have a fondness for Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons and Val McDermid’s Report For Murder, even if neither of these is an example of either author’s best work.
But most of these authors belong to an earlier time, and reading them today it’s hard not to notice that it was apparently a time in which casual racism was acceptable, the working classes are fundamentally slack-jawed and superstitious, and if occasionally a character is not upper-class or white, the reader is very quickly made to wish they were. I recently read some of Gladys Mitchell’s classic crime novels; the “African prince” in Tom Brown’s Body has an unfortunate habit of biting opposing footballers due to his ancestry.
And then there’s Murder Most Unladylike, the first in a modern series of crime novels for younger readers by Robin Stevens. Set in 1934 (but published in 2014), it follows the adventures of thirteen year old boarding school detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, after Hazel finds the body of one of their teachers in (where else?) the gymnasium. Both Stevens and her characters are very genre-conscious; early in the book we learn that the girls have been reading Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, and we will discover that Hazel is a school story reader as well. The whole thing opens with one of those terribly useful floor plans, and we have all the school politics and crushes and annoying juniors of an Angela Brazil book. The references to earlier literature are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle enough to be in-jokes. More than once I laughed out loud in recognition.
But it’s unfair to Stevens to treat this merely as a pastiche of two genres, and it’s where she deviates from them that Murder Most Unladylike is at its best. Because Hazel, our narrator, is from Hong Kong (she is, as far as we can tell, the only non-white pupil at Deepdean school); she’s clever and pretends not to be; she has a complicated relationship with her overbearing, popular best friend. This is about as far as it’s possible to be from Gladys Mitchell’s African prince, or the Hurree Jamset Ram Singh of the Billy Bunter books—or even Christie’s precocious Princess Shaista. Stevens’s depiction of Hazel’s cultural background is sometimes clumsy, but it always acknowledges her as more than a stock character, and depicts a world in which casual racism exists and affects those who are its targets. It’s unlikely that most of the target audience for this book will recognise these deviations from a pattern with which they are not yet familiar, but they mattered to me. In more ways than one, Murder Most Unladylike felt like being given a place in a genre (two genres) that I love.
Apparently Stevens’ next book in the series is a country house murder. Which, as far as I’m concerned, just proves that she is writing for me.