I'm going to be branching out ever so slightly by discussing young adult mystery novels here on the blog. They may not be short, but they are quite sweet!
This is a genre that is fairly overlooked in the blogosphere with mainly my good friend J. J. over on The Invisible Event returning to his wonderful Minor Felonies posts with some irregularity. (To be honest, TomCat has also been discussing this genre - mainly in the form of the classic Three Investigators series).
It may not be the most attention-drawing type of literature, and like comics, there is probably a mental block in many adults who dismiss this as "something for the kids". Which of course in a way it is. But there is lots of good work being done in the genre, and it's always a pleasure when you can point out gems, no matter what genre you've found that diamond in.
For my first post on this subject, I am going to write about the fifth novel in the ongoing A Murder Most Unladylike series, written by Robin Stevens, which is called "Mistletoe and Murder".
As you may recall, the estimable J. J. and I discussed the previous novel in the series ("Jolly Foul Play") on his site just the other month. If not, click here to read up on that discussion. There, we theorised that Stevens is approaching each instalment in the ongoing series as a way to implement and feature a particular trope of Golden Age Mystery fiction. I'm glad to say that this theory holds water with this fifth novel.
Because, as you can probably infer from the title, this is a Christmas mystery. But not only that - it is also a university/college mystery, set as it is in Cambridge in the mid 1930s. Hazel Wong, our narrator, and her best friend Daisy Wells (also the president of the Detective Society) have been invited to celebrate Christmas with Daisy's brother Bertie, who is studying in Cambridge.
Stevens gets a lot of mileage out of this setting - most of the action takes place in the fictional Maudlin college where Bertie lives, along with several mates. There's the twin brothers Donald and Chummy Melling, their on and off friend Alfred Cheng, and also their history don, Michael Butler.
We're also allowed to mingle with various other Cambridge residents, for example Daisy's great-aunt Eustacia Mountfichet and female student Amanda Price. But most of all, Daisy and Hazel get a chance to finally meet - and match wits with - their rival detective society The Junior Pinkertons, George Mukherjee and Alexander Arcady.
In fact, when Daisy and Hazel first come to Cambridge, we find out that Donald - who in just a few days will inherit a large fortune - has been very accident prone. It is generally assumed that most of these accidents are just that, accidents. Even though his brother Chummy - who is one of those awful people that for some reason authors try to convince their readership that the other characters enjoy the company of - is known for being a prankster.
However, both the Detective Society and the Junior Pinkertons smell something fishy, and they decide to enter a wager to see who can get to the bottom of the whole thing first. Unfortunately, the very next night Chummy is found dead, having fallen down a flight of stairs because he tripped over a fishing line that had been set at the top of the stairs.
So now instead our rivalling detectives have a real crime to investigate! Which just a day later becomes two crimes...
I'm happy to report that this is a clear improvement on the previous book in the series, which was a breezy read but had some serious problems in its handling of the mystery, where the final culprit seemed to be rather pulled out of a hat. We have a tiny whiff of that here as well, but in this case Stevens manages to eliminate suspects one by one by having her detectives investigate clues and talk to the persons involved. The main problem here is that the suspects that are eliminated are the bit players, and we're left with just the two main suspects.
And since everyone except Hazel suspect one of those suspects over the other, this kinda means that all us savvy readers will know that it's person no. 2 who is the bad guy. But at least Stevens then provides a couple of clues that point definitely to the killer.
The denouement is handled fairly well - there's some real excitement in the final action sequence. We get explanations for why other characters acted suspiciously, and they also fit with the overall story. So, all in all, this was a very pleasant read, and I'd probably rank this as no. 2 or 3 in the series. (Best is "First Class Murder", and this one is tied with "Arsenic for Tea".)
As this is written in the 2010s, there's quite a lot of pages devoted to things that matter to a modern audience. Hazel's point of view is quite interesting, seeing that she is an outsider in the English society - both because she's female and because she's from Hong Kong. In this novel she also gets to appreciate that other people have the same outsider position - Bertie's fellow student Alfred Cheng, for example, who like Hazel is from Hong Kong, not to mention George Mukherjee and his Indian heritage. Some of Hazel's and George's conversations (and perhaps even more what is NOT being said!) are quite poignant, and as a non-Englishman myself (though still a "Westerner") who is rather nonplussed by some of the quintessentially English behavioural traits I find a lot of things to agree with.
You may also recall from the discussion of the previous novel on The Invisible Event that I argued that Daisy Wells might well be on the autistic spectrum. I feel quite vindicated in that belief by her characterisation here. It's quite clear that she operates on a different level than most other people - though she is quite delighted (and challenged!) by meeting George Mukherjee, a young man with fairly similar characteristics.
If you're looking for a modern mystery with clear GA influences and are willing to dip your toe in the Young Adult genre, I don't think you can find many better books to read than these ones. I recommend it wholeheartedly. There is certainly some continuity between the novels in the series, and none of them are bad reads, so if you can see yourself commit to the series, then by all means read them in order. But otherwise, this works perfectly fine as a standalone novel.
And by the way, my copy contains a short story featuring two of Hazel's and Daisy's classmates on their own Christmas adventure. But this story is also included in the collection "Cream Buns and Crime", so it's a bit superfluous here...