Sunday, November 17, 2013

Underwhelming: Murder Underground (1935), by M. Doriel Hay

Under the name M. Doriel Hay, Mavis Doriel Hay (1894-1979) published three detective novels in the 1930s, which are being reprinted this year and the next.  Out first is her last one, The Santa Klaus Murder (1936)--tis the season!

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
Here's how the new publisher (British Library Crime Classics/University of Chicago Press Books) describes Murder Underground:

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
This is the kind of English mystery where a character you are meant to sympathize with says, when told Miss Pongleton might have been contemplating marrying a businessman named Slocomb (the bright young things call him "Slowgo"--they also call the landlady Miss Waddilove, "Waddletoes"), "Do you mean he thought she might marry him? I suppose it's possible.  One hears of such things.  He's not a gentleman, but old ladies do sometimes run off the rails."

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!).


  1. Curtis - Sorry to hear you didn't like this one any better the second time. I have to say I agree completely with you too about t hat attitude towards something as terrible as murder. I prefer mysteries where it's at least taken seriously and I don't care much for characters who don't. Shame too because I really do applaud you and others who are working to bring some of these old stories back.

    1. Margot, yes, I actually found myself feeling quite sorry for Miss Pongleton and not much liking the characters. I'm all for bringing old books back, as you know. There are a lot of good overlooked ones, but I' don't believe this is one. Maybe The Santa Klaus Murder is better. I just felt I had to call it like I see it, or I'm not helpful as a reviewer.

  2. I have Death on the Cherwell and I've always thought it reads more like a mystery for juvenile readers rather than a standard golden age mystery. But being ex Oxford it's fun for the locations if nothing else. I digitised my copy years ago in case I mislaid it. Of late I've also been scanning and OCR ing some of my Rhode and Burtons. Living in Bush fire country these days I realised that it would be just about impossible to replace them even if they are insured.

  3. It would be nice to see all the Burtons and Rhodes reprinted. John Street was a rather more notable mystery author than M. Doriel Hay. But with the copyright situation, it's a challenge. I'm planning to review a Rhode this month, by the way, including the jacket, which as far as I know has never been seen before.

  4. I liked The Santa Klaus Murder even if it was rather run-of-the-mill. (Review coming tomorrow!) Some interesting things to say about WW1 veterans and one unusual woman character in the veteran's wife. And the villain is a nasty piece of work, rather like Iago. I get copies of all these British Library reprints ever since the Univ of Chicago Press (the US distributor for British Library) liked my review of THE FEMALE DETECTIVE and used a bit of the review as a blurb on their web page for the book.

    1. As I said, I'll probably never get any review copies from them now!

      Was the book a real fair play detective novel? And I take it the tone was not so silly?

    2. Yes, very fair play! An enviable work from a novice, I'd say. No silly tone, but a few lighthearted moments. The family is a bitter one so lots of sardonic humor rather than farcical touches. Review is up now here.

  5. I do agree that murder should be treated seriously; one of the bases upon which detective fiction is founded is that the community finds murder so outrageous that it is legitimate (in fictional terms) for an amateur to investigate crimes that shock the community. But I'm prepared to accept that occasionally a story about murder can be the basis of a farcical work of fiction, like the novels of Phoebe Atwood Taylor writing as Alice Tilton, or John Dickson Carr's "The Blind Barber". I don't usually enjoy them, but I can accept them. It doesn't sound like Ms. Hay meant her work to be farcical… and I dislike the idea that murder can merely be mildly amusing and part of a kind of gentle social commentary, as you seem to be suggesting.
    I'd like to read these, though, and you always do such a good job of making me want to!! I say, bring EVERYTHING back from the Golden Age in e-book format and let me decide -- and I'll hope that publishers continue to make available as physical books some of the better ones.
    (smiling) If anyone wants to store backup electronic copies of their Rhodes and Burtons with me, I'd be happy to take on the onerous task of storing them. Just out of the goodness of my heart, you know!

    1. Noah, I do agree with you about Taylor/Tilton, her books are so clearly farcical (Rice too), I don't have a problem with that and in fact enjoy those books.

      Blind Barber seems to me in many ways a brilliant book, but, as Doug Greene has said, one can argue that there are tone issues. There's some rather unpleasant elements in that book when you think about it, that would go more more with a horror emphasis. But there's hilarious stuff as well.

    2. Oh, yes: let's by all means bring more GA works back in print!

  6. Perhaps the flippant attitude to the murder of an old lady (even one whom no-one seems to have liked - if you read the book carefully, you will see that she was not a 'nice' old lady - righteous maybe, but not very nice) is why the book and the authoress are largely forgotten in our time; and perhaps it is right that it and she should be forgotten, and not reprinted for a modern, discerning audience. Just a thought.