Coincidentally, I already have her first two, Murder Underground (1935) and Death on the Cherwell (1935), scheduled to be reprinted next year. As a connoisseur of old detective novels who has been involved in bringing some back into print, I wish I could be more positive about the one I read, Murder Underground, but, the truth is, I started it several years ago and found it so unengaging I didn't finish it (I didn't even skip to the end to see who did it). I went back and read it in its entirety over the weekend and found I didn't like it any better.
|the original edition
the grim jacket is at odds with
the tone of the book
If you were suddenly found to be murdered, would your friends have theories about who had done the deed? Well, when the wealthy and unpleasant Miss Pongleton meets her end on the stairs of Belsize Park underground station in Murder Underground, her housemates--though not particularly grieved--have plenty of guesses at the identity of the killer. While they're airing theories, events arise that unexpectedly enable several of them, including Tuppy the terrier, to put them to the test.
This novel from the golden age of British crime fiction is sure to puzzle and charm fans of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey.
This blurb gives a few hints of what I didn't like about this book. Most notably, the murder of Miss Pongleton--she is strangled with a dog leash--is treated in that flippant "Murder? What fun!" style that used to set Raymond Chandler's teeth on edge. Now, okay, you can say Chandler was an old sourpuss, if you want, but, actually, I did find the attitude in this book a bit unseemly, considering the sort of murder with which it deals.
The murder victim, along with her surely quite brutal murder and the surely quite unpleasant finding of her body, are described at second hand--decidedly anti-climactic--but Miss Pongleton doesn't even sound like she was all that objectionable. Artistically, it seems to me, if you are going to kill off an old lady via strangulation with a dog's leash and then adopt an "amusing" attitude about it, you should at least make the old lady really horrible.
Hay does have some ability at light characterization, which is fortunate, since this book is almost entirely conversation, with very little descriptive or contemplative passages. The main interest of the book is in its portrayal of boarding house life. There are a couple landladies, rather good, and a whole parcel of "bright young things," rather tiresome.
Hay seems more interested in having people talk about the murder investigation than in actually depicting the murder investigation. For most of the book the police are referred to, but never seen. It felt like this was Hay's way of getting around not knowing how to portray a police investigation, which struck me as unsatisfactory. We don't even really get much in the way of amateur detection. There's a lot of blather about Miss Pongleton's poor artistic nephew, Basil, being suspected for the crime (he was her heir and had only a small allowance from his people so was hard-up), as well as hoo-hah about Miss Pongleton's missing pearl necklace; but for me it was tedium.
|the bright and cheery cover
of the new edition
Then there's Hay's portrayal of Mamie Hadden. a woman Basil "picked up" to attend a motion picture with him (really). We get a lot in her scene about her excessive makeup, questionable accent, painted fingernails and "artificial silk" clothes. Hay seems more outraged about the existence of people like Mamie Hadden wearing artificial silk than she does about, well, murder.
As one genteel character says of the murder, "Really dreadful! There's never been anything of the kind in the family before; it's so--so--demeaning!"
Of course the one servant in the book is always sniffling and snuffling and speaking in such heavy Cockney it's slow going (for an American, anyway) deciphering what's she's saying.
The murder in itself has no academic interest, despite the presence of two diagrams and a family tree (all unnecessary).
Will Murder Underground "puzzle and charm fans of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey" (why not, incidentally, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham while we're at it)? Maybe it will some, but it didn't me. Maybe Hay got better in her second and third books.
The second one, Death on the Cherwell, takes place, I believe, at a fictional women's college at Oxford, so I can see the appeal to Sayers' fans, at least in theory (and there's another map!). I believe Hay herself was at Oxford, like Sayers. But Murder Underground is not close to the level of Sayers or Christie, let alone, say, Freeman Wills Crofts. It seems to me a book by an intelligent person who wanted to write a detective novel, but didn't really have the particular skill set required to do it well (and, by the way, it wasn't the Golden Age of crime fiction, but of detective fiction--a noteworthy difference!).