For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behaviour among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cosy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe.
The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play, and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death – and the clues that point to a fellow student.
Originally published in 1935, Death on the Cherwell is one of the British Library’s reissues of classic crime novels (from 2014) and it features an introduction by Stephen Booth.
A crime novel set in a fictional women’s Oxford college will inevitably attract comparisons with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night but this is a much more light-hearted affair, with its focus more on the students than the dons, although it shares a disdain for the word “undergraduettes”, which appears to have been beloved of journalists at that time. The set-up is promising: a group of friends have formed a league to seek revenge on the college bursar, only to be interrupted by her drowned body floating down the river in her own canoe. Initial shock gives way to a determination to solve this mystery by themselves.
As a mystery, it is a little lacking – the solution is easy enough to guess – and, the blurb notwithstanding, the police do most of the work. As a period-piece, it’s fascinating, especially if you’re interested in slang, fashion and suchlike. There is the casual xenophobia you’d expect from the era – the “Yugo-Slav” student is, obviously, excitable and baffled by the English insistence on punctuality.
There are points when it reads like a child trying to please their teacher by shoe-horning in as many “wow words” as possible in place of the prosaic “said”. In the first chapter alone, characters cry in shrill dismay, retort in withering tone, comment, suggest, grumble, decree, point out, demand, interrupt, declare, remind, muse, inquire, concede, advise, comment, squeak, whisper, mutter, exclaim, murmur, state, yell, corroborate, gasp and wail…
On the other hand, I did like the opening musings on undergraduates (perhaps not so much the case these days with debts and fees and all the rest of it? And of course undergraduates were also under age in those days…):
Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human. Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood-earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again with the advantage of an undimmed memory of their former lives. […] The easily acquired label of “originality” is so much more distinguished than the “naughtiness” of their out-passed schooldays, and quite a lot of wildness may be mixed with a modicum of work and form a sound basis for a highly respectable later life.
It may not have the depth of the best crime fiction, but as a fun and frivolous way to spend a wet bank holiday, it was highly entertaining.