The Murder Most Unladylike books, by Robin Stevens, are a series of children’s books featuring Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells, teenage girls studying together at a girls’ boarding school in the interwar period. I haven’t bothered to review them here before now – however, I read the most recent novel, Death in the Spotlight, as part of my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and I am doing my level best to review every one of those books here. There doesn’t seem much point in just reviewing the most recent novel when there have been seven others (and they’re all much of a muchness), so I thought I’d share my impressions of the series overall.
The premise is that Daisy and Hazel have set up a Detective Society at their boarding school, and initially they find themselves stuck investigating dull things like missing scarves – until, suddenly, murder! They solemnly swear that they will find the culprit, and, this being a murder mystery series, they do. They then proceed to find (so far) six more, which seems like an excessive number of murders for two teenage girls to find themselves tangled up with. Then again, I never bother about that when I am reading Miss Marple, so why should I worry about it here? And in fact, as I have proceeded through the series, I’ve found myself more and more willing to buy the premise that these two unlikely characters are somehow always the heroes of the hour.
Deepdean, the school where the first few books are set, clearly owes a lot to Malory Towers, St Clare’s, and sundry other early 20th century boarding school novels. Midnight feasts and lacrosse and complicated political machinations among teenage girls – these are present in abundance. I think if I’d read these novels at the age for which they are intended, I would have absolutely adored them. Even as it is, I am enjoying them a lot, though I can certainly see that they are a trifle ridiculous. Similarly, the novels indirectly and directly reference Agatha Christie and other Golden Age writers – I listened to an interview with the author in which she said that one of her hopes was that she would introduce a new generation of readers to these works, and I’m absolutely sure that is happening. The novels even follow, more or less, most of the rules of detective fiction that those Golden Age writers used.
The friendship at the heart of these books, between Daisy and Hazel, develops and changes over the course of the series. I say this because I really didn’t care for Daisy at all to start with – in the first novel, she appears to be bullying Hazel in a few places (Hazel is Chinese, and a little bit fat, both qualities which stand out in an interwar girls’ boarding school). As the series progresses, Stevens very clearly and intentionally puts the characters into situations where Hazel is in charge and in her comfort zone. As a result, Daisy grows to respect her friend, and Hazel becomes more confident, without either losing her original personality. Although I don’t think the later books have been as inventive as the earlier ones, they are a lot more fun to read, because it makes more sense that the two characters would actually be spending time together. The friendship feels a lot less coercive and a lot more natural.
I must say, because Grab the Lapels’ excellent series on fat women in fiction has made me more aware of it, that the way Stevens writes Hazel’s relationship with weight and food is a tad troubling. Certainly, I think that any teenage girl who is carrying even an ounce of weight that she doesn’t want is going to fret and worry about it constantly, and so I don’t have a problem with that aspect of Hazel’s characterisation. The thing that bothers me more is that Hazel is always thinking about food, especially in the first couple of novels. It’s probably part of Stevens’ scene-setting (food was always such an important part of those Blyton books, written mostly during rationing), and so I can see why it’s there – but I wish that Hazel was just a touch less obsessed, for reasons of plausibility as much as anything else.
Despite that niggle, I think Stevens writes the two characters as believable teenagers. They are both exaggerated in personality, and also a little younger than girls of the same age would be now, but rich girls at a boarding school in 1935 probably were rather sheltered. There have even been a couple of places where I’ve had to put the book down and come back to it a day or two later, because it was so much like being 14 again that it was excruciating. For example, plain, studious, shy Hazel develops an extremely unmanageable crush on a boy who is naturally besotted with beautiful, outgoing Daisy. It was far too real, so I stopped reading it for several days out of indignation at having to remember being a teenager. (Good grief. Aren’t you glad you aren’t a teenager any more?)
The mysteries themselves are designed for children, so I can normally solve them by partway through, and I normally spot clues when they are being given. Nonetheless, they are a lot of fun. Based on the fact that I’ve read all seven novels in the space of a couple of months, you can probably tell that I have enjoyed them all. They aren’t great literary accomplishments, but they are precisely what I want to read on a sunny evening in between books that are more challenging – and really, what more could I ask from them than that?
NB If you are in the US and you want to read these, I recommend trying to get hold of the British version. Apparently, substantial changes were made to the novels by the US publisher to make them easier to read, but at the expense of the boarding school and period scene-setting – which is a large part of what makes the series so fun.
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