Four young women who attend Persephone College in Oxford casually stroll down to the River Cherwell for a little ceremony. They are there, an undergraduate secret society of a sort, to express their frustration, anger, and general ill will against the college’s bursar, Myra Denning, who’s apparently something of a tyrant and generally disliked. As they stand near the riverbank, they see a canoe coming toward them, Myra Denning’s canoe, and Myra’s in it.
And Myra Denning is very much dead.
And she appears to have drowned. But if she drowned, then how did she get into the canoe?
So begins Mavis Doriel Hay’s Death on the Cherwell, one of three mysteries published by Hay in the 1930s and recently republished by the British Library (the others being Murder Underground and The Santa Klaus Murder.
Death on the Cherwell is kind of a locked room mystery. While there’s no apparent shortage of suspects – from local residents fighting the sale of land to the undergraduates themselves – everyone involved seems to have something of an airtight alibi. The local detective investigating the murder is somewhat confounded; the college girls start doing some sleuthing of their own; and eventually Scotland Yard arrives. And it is the Yard who will ultimately solve the murder. And murder it indeed is.
Hay attended St. Hilda’s College at Oxford, at a time when women could attend but not graduate. She draws upon that experience for this story, and it has the feel of the city and colleges we know as Oxford (says this seasoned traveler who’s been there all of one time).
While story looks like one without a solution, it has one, of course. And the shape of it appears fairly early in the narrative – the key is something of a secret, buried in the past. Those secrets, however, have a bad habit of surfacing at inconvenient times.
It’s a fun story, too, and includes cameo appearances by two of the characters from Murder Underground.
The three stories were Hay’s only contributions to the Golden Age of the mystery story (and the sub-genre popularized by Agatha Christie). For whatever reason, she left mystery writing behind, and turned her creative energies to other endeavors, especially quilt making. But we do have these three.
My reviews of Hay’s other mysteries: