Perhaps you were wondering what on earth I have been doing for the last month that so drew me away from my weekly duty. Perhaps you were wondering where on earth I had got to, or maybe you hadn’t even noticed my absence (ouch). Frankly, I wish I could give you a more satisfying answer to your question than the truth: that I was procrastinating writing this article, my nineteenth and final instalment of the ‘Must Read Voraciously to Improve Style’ column.
And so, wiping away a stray tear to be typing again, I ask myself what better way to sign off for this column and the year 2021, than to talk about an underrated book set in the one place that unites all of us Oxonian students: our very own city of dreaming spires. Welcome to my farewell article with Mavis Doriel Hay’s Death on the Cherwell right at the centre.
Death on the Cherwell revolves around a group of students at a fictional women’s Oxford college, Persephone College, in the 1930s. One evening, when the group has assembled on the roof of their college boathouse to take a solemn oath together, they unexpectedly find the corpse of Persephone’s bursar in an approaching canoe. This group of freshers take it upon themselves to investigate the death, nay, suspected murder (dun-dun-duuun) of their bursar despite the ongoing police enquiry.
The writing style, at first, might seem very of its time: a long sequence of exhausting clauses, archaisms spotted in amongst the fray… but then again, I don’t see how my writing differs much from this. I was, however, surprised at the alacrity with which Mavis Doriel Hay drew me into the story. Whether it was down to the familiar setting, I can’t tell you, but within a few pages you are guaranteed to have your interest piqued, if nothing else, and before long you will find yourself intrigued to discover the answer to this murder mystery. Each girl in our group of assumed detectives has a distinct character that continues throughout the whole story, and their interactions with each other are the cause of many comedic moments.
Here are some quintessentially Oxonian things mentioned in this book:
- skipping lectures
- trudging through Oxford parks
- pointed yet truthful quips at Cambridge’s inferiority
- that one friend that thinks they’re a real poet
I’ll be completely honest – Death on the Cherwell probably won’t be the best book you’ve ever read. Hell, it probably won’t even be the best murder mystery book you’ve ever read. Other authors are more creative and experimental with their writing, other plots are more shocking and misleading, other endings are more logical, other characters are more fleshed out. Yet in spite of it all, it remains a thoroughly good read. And you’ll definitely get an added frisson at recognising names like Broad Street, Cornmarket, and Blackwell’s. The novel somehow brings about a strange yearning to go trampling through the Oxford undergrowth in search of clues to explain a bursar’s corpse.
My parting message for you all is this. It’s not necessarily the best, most amazing, most critically acclaimed things that will leave an impression on you. What’s dear to you doesn’t have to be dear to anyone else, whether it’s a battered teddy bear, a comfort blanket, a trinket bought in a foreign market long ago, or an arguably unremarkably standard murder mystery book. Sure, Mavis Doriel Hay’s book holds a special place in my heart partly because I study at Oxford, and partly because it felt magical to find a new copy of it for a pound in a second-hand bookshop in Jericho. That doesn’t make it any less dear to my heart. As long I resonated on some degree with an aspect of this novel, that’s been enough to elicit a long-standing fondness for it within me.
You may not have thought my column, or my writing, was quite your cup of tea. You’ve probably read better formulated sentences, or articles that have impacted you more. But as long as I’ve somehow managed to leave the slightest imprint in your memory, or even if you let slip a wry smile at reading one of my articles that one time, I’ll consider my job well done. Modesty is always at its sincerest when followed by narcissism, so I must tearfully remind you that even the best things (i.e. this column) must come to an end, and herein concludes our literary adventure. Many merry wishes and a happy new year. For the last time: