Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

A classic mystery novel set in and around the Northern Line

The British Library Crime Classics edition of Murder Underground
The British Library Crime Classics
edition of Murder Underground 

Murder Underground, the first detective novel by Mavis Doriel Hay, is underpinned by a very clever plot. It has a satisfying ending and enjoyable resolution scenes that wrap up the individual stories of the characters and I found it to be a very good read.

First published in 1934, during the Golden Age of British crime fiction, the setting for this classic mystery novel is the Northern Line of the underground in London.

When Miss Pongleton, who is considered by others to be a tiresome old spinster, is found murdered on the stairs at Belsize Park Station, her fellow boarders at the Frampton Hotel are not exactly overwhelmed by grief, but they all have their theories about the identity of her murderer.

They help to unravel the mystery of who killed ‘Pongle’ with the help of Tuppy the terrier, the victim’s dog, and each play their part in the events that lead to the dramatic conclusion.

There is of course an official police investigation, led by Inspector Caird, but he is in the background for most of the story and it is the amateur sleuths at the Frampton Hotel who unearth the clues and finally make sense of the different pieces of the puzzle.

Hay was born in February 1894 in Potters Bar in Middlesex. She attended St Hilda’s College in Oxford from 1913 to 1916. She published three mystery novels within three years in the 1930s, Murder Underground, Death on the Cherwell and The Santa Klaus Murder. Her second novel, Death on the Cherwell, appeared during the same year as Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers and coincidentally both novels were set in women’s colleges in Oxford.

After Murder Underground was published, Dorothy L Sayers wrote a review in the Sunday Times in 1934, saying: ‘This detective novel is much more than interesting. The numerous characters are well differentiated, and include one of the most feckless, exasperating, and lifelike literary men that ever confused a trail.’

Like Dorothy L Sayers, Mavis attended Oxford before women were allowed to graduate. She was interested in the industries and handicrafts of rural Britain and, after leaving university, she was sponsored by the Agricultural Economics Research Institute of Oxford University to collaborate with Helen Fitzrandolph on a series of works surveying the rural industries. Mavis was also interested in quilting and published several books on crafts.

She married Helen Fitzrandolph’s brother, Archibald Menzies Fitzrandolph, in 1929. He was killed in a flying accident during World War II. Mavis Doriel Hay died in 1979 at the age of 85.

Eighty years after it was first published, Murder Underground was republished by British Library Crime Classics in 2014. In his introduction to the new edition of the novel, crime writer Stephen Booth said that Mavis Doriel Hay had been ‘unjustifiably overlooked.’ He also bemoaned the fact that her third detective novel, The Santa Klaus Murder, published in 1936, was sadly her last, and wondered whether the approach of World War II was the reason for this.

I am sure that lovers of classic crime novels will be glad to have the opportunity to get to know this author now. I have to admit that I found Murder Underground to be a slow starter, but I kept in mind the fact that it was Mavis’s first novel.

I thought she was better at portraying the female characters, such as Beryl, Betty and Cissie, than the leading males, such as the hapless Basil, who was referred to by Dorothy L Sayers in her review, or Beryl’s amiable, but ineffectual, fiancĂ©, Gerry.

Nevertheless, I would recommend Murder Underground to other readers as an excellent example of a whodunit.

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Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh

Alleyn falls in love but he still has to be professional and solve the murder

Artists in Crime was Marsh's sixth novel featuring Roderick Alleyn
Artists in Crime was Marsh's sixth
novel featuring Roderick Alleyn
Artists in Crime introduces Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s love interest for the first time, the painter Agatha Troy. She is reserved, independent and a successful professional artist and Alleyn instantly finds himself falling for her.

The detective first meets Troy when he is returning from a long holiday in New Zealand and boards a ship to Vancouver. As the ship leaves the port of Suva after calling at the Pacific island of Fiji, he sees Troy up on the deck painting the wharf before it fades into the distance.

Alleyn already knows and admires Troy’s work and he has an awkward conversation with her about it. He finds himself drawn to her at once, but she seems unimpressed with him and is offhand.

They next meet when Alleyn is sent to investigate a murder that has occurred at the country house in England she has inherited from her father. He is staying with his mother, who has a house near Troy’s home, before he returns to work after his long absence. His superior officer at Scotland Yard telephones to ask him to start work early to investigate a murder near where he is staying.

When he goes to the house, he again sees Troy, who is still shocked after a woman has been killed in her home in a macabre way. She does not welcome Alleyn and his officers searching the rooms of her guests or keeping them under supervision in her dining room while they embark on their investigation.

Alleyn tries to maintain a professional detachment but finds himself apologising to Troy for the things he must do to investigate the murder. It is only at the end of the novel, when the case has been solved and the murderer arrested, that we see a softening in Troy’s attitude towards him, which gives Alleyn hope for the future

Simon Williams (left) played Chief Inspector Alleyn in the 1990 BBC TV adaptation of Artists in Crime
Patrick Malahide (left) played Chief Inspector Alleyn
in the 1990 BBC TV adaptation of Artists in Crime
The suspects in the case are all Troy’s students, who pay her ‘substantial fees’ to study under her in the studio she has built in the garden of her home. The victim. Sonia, is an artist’s model, who the students are painting in the nude.  She is posing on a bed that has been draped with a silk cloth. Earlier, a dagger has been attached to the underside of the bed and the model is impaled on the point when she takes up her pose for the class.

Troy inherited the house from her father, but he did not leave her much money so she has to earn her own living. However, she is shown living comfortably in the world of the 1930s upper classes in England. She has a well-staffed country home and enjoys living in the Bohemian art world of London, where she stays at a club and has many society friends.

Artists in Crime was  televised in 1968 and 1990. It is a well-plotted mystery with a surprising ending and it is interesting for the reader to see Alleyn’s character developing from the way he is portrayed in the earlier books. He is once again ably assisted by his subordinates, Fox and Bailey, and his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate.

I did not find the details about methods of painting and artists’ equipment very interesting, but I realise Ngaio would have found it fascinating because she enjoyed painting herself and studied art before becoming an actress and then a crime writer.

First published in 1938, Artists in Crime is the sixth Roderick Alleyn mystery and is well  worth reading for the whodunit element of the novel alone. The love interest between Alleyn and Troy is well set up and has immediately made me want to read the next novel in the series, Death in a White Tie, in which Troy appears again.  

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Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth

A blend of blackmail, murder and romance makes for an intriguing mystery

Miss Silver Intervenes is
the sixth Miss Silver mystery
We learn more about the character of Miss Silver in this sixth book by Patricia Wentworth featuring the ex-governess turned private investigator.

She is no longer just a little old lady sitting in the background knitting, but is shown to be well respected by the police, who treat her as an equal and give her full access to their investigation in this story.

The mystery involves residents who live in eight flats in Vandeleur House, an old converted mansion in Putney. The characters are beautifully drawn by Patricia Wentworth and I found myself enticed into their world and wanting to keep turning the pages of the novel to find out more about them.

Miss Silver comes into the story when one of the residents, Mrs Underwood, who she has met once through mutual friends, calls on her unexpectedly at her flat. Although Mrs Underwood is reluctant to admit why she has come to see Miss Silver, she eventually reveals that she is being blackmailed and needs help.

Mrs Underwood can't bring herself to tell Miss Silver the full details of what has been happening to her, but later, when Miss Silver reads that another resident living in the same block of flats has been murdered, she decides to take matters into her own hands and manages to get herself invited to stay at Vandeleur House.

Mrs Underwood is living there with her niece by marriage, Meade, who is recovering from the shock of being in a shipwreck in which her fiancé, Giles, was drowned. Then one day while she is out shopping, Meade encounters Giles, who was rescued from the sea but has now lost his memory.

Patricia Wentworth (above) again spins an intriguing mystery
Patricia Wentworth (above) again
spins an intriguing mystery
Miss Silver wastes no time in getting to know the other residents in the flats and finding out about their relationships with each other using her considerable skills as a conversationalist.

There is a middle aged couple whose marriage has been put under strain by the husband’s obsession with the attractive young woman who lives in the flat above them. A pleasant young woman is clearly being bullied by the domineering mother she lives with. An elderly spinster is struggling to survive financially because of her income being affected by the wartime economy. An elderly woman is being cared for by her maid and a companion, and there is a single man who keeps himself to himself so that no one knows what his occupation is.

When the police investigating the murder find out that Miss Silver is staying with her friend, Mrs Underwood, they invite her to join forces with them but the relationship becomes somewhat strained when they opt for a simpler explanation for the murder than the theory Miss Silver has put forward.

However, they eventually have to admit they were wrong when the old lady, with a fondness for the poetry of Tennyson, manages to unravel what has been going on at Vandeleur House while simultaneously knitting a pair of socks for her relative in the air force.

During the story, Miss Silver also makes a new friend in one of the investigating officers, Sergeant Frank Abbott, who is invited to the celebratory tea party in her flat at the end of the novel.

I would say the only weak point in the plot is that Miss Silver uses her knowledge of a previous blackmailing case to help her identify the murderer, which gives her an advantage over the police and the reader. But nevertheless, I found Miss Silver Intervenes, first published in 1944, to be extremely well written and enjoyable.

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The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell

Madness and witchcraft in a village that seems to be living in the Middle Ages

The Devil at Saxon Wall is the sixth Mrs Bradley mystery
The Devil at Saxon Wall is
the sixth Mrs Bradley mystery
Probably the most bizarre Mrs Bradley mystery yet, The Devil at Saxon Wall, the sixth novel about the eccentric psychoanalyst and amateur detective, published in 1935, is the first of a number of Gladys Mitchell’s books to feature the theme of witchcraft.

The story was inspired after Gladys heard a lecture on witchcraft by her friend, the detective fiction writer Helen Simpson, and she dedicated this book to her.

Mrs Bradley has advised her best-selling novelist friend, Hannibal Jones, who has had a breakdown and is suffering from writer’s block, to retreat to a quiet, rustic village to find rest and inspiration for his work. 

Although the village of Saxon Wall might seem the perfect rural escape to begin with, Jones soon finds himself intrigued by the odd characters among the villagers and their pagan beliefs.

He also finds himself compelled to try to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Neot House, a place where a young couple died soon after the birth of their first child.

It is a hot summer and the villagers are desperate for rain because they are short of water. They decide the local vicar is to blame for the lack of water and Jones has to step in to defend him when their anger drives them to march on the vicarage armed with weapons.

Gladys Mitchell tells the story with the skill that was her hallmark
Gladys Mitchell tells the story with
the skill that was her hallmark
Jones makes some enquiries to try to sort out what happened to two babies who he thinks may have been swapped at birth, but when a man from the village is found bludgeoned to death, he decides he must call in Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to help him.

The strangely dressed old lady with her hideous cackle is more than a match for the angry villagers and she proceeds to root out the devil at Saxon Wall using her own unique and unorthodox methods.

At the end of the novel, Mrs Bradley expresses the opinion that the inhabitants of Saxon Wall are incapable of making straightforward statements. She thinks that this peculiarity dates back to the days of the Norman conquest when the Saxons of those parts, too cunning to tell direct lies to their overlords, resorted to maddening half statements and obscure pronouncements, which made them difficult to understand.

Although the characters and situations are bizarre, the novel presents an intriguing mystery which Mrs Bradley skilfully unravels and the story is well told by Gladys, who helpfully provides ‘End Papers’ to clarify issues for the reader.

I found The Devil at Saxon Wall entertaining and enjoyable and well worth reading.  

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