by Mavis Doriel Hay
One of the British Library Crime Classics series, this 1930s crime novel is a bit of a lost treasure. Not exactly a gripping page-turner in the way modern readers would expect, it is typical of the period. What makes it stand out from the crowd is the focus on its female characters.
Set in a pre-Morse Oxford, a group of young ladies from Persephone College discover the body of their Bursar floating down the Cherwell, things begin to get very un-ladylike.
Reading Death on the Cherwell is like peeking through a window onto another world. As much as it is a crime story, there is a secondary theme of prejudice and attitudes to women, particularly in academia. Today we expect to see strong female leads, but this has not always been the case. In 1930s Britain, young ladies were not really expected to put too much effort into securing a higher education. After all, what use would that be once they had married, which was their first primary goal anyway!
Whilst Sally, Daphne, Gwyneth and Nina – our would-be sleuths in this tale – do their best to uncover the truth behind their gruesome find, the male characters, particularly the police, display an embarrassing level of condescension towards them. But this was the attitude of the time and its reflection in this work is only to be expected.
I enjoyed the book but found the plot itself a little strained at times. Like many others in the series, it is the insight into the period that makes it interesting.