As a fan of Persephone books, Dorothy L. Sayers, and golden age British crime 'Death on the Cherwell' was always going to sound like a winner to me - published in the same year as Sayers 'Gaudy Night' (1935), and set in the fictional Persephone College (apparently based on St Hilda's which Hay attended between 1913 and 1916 - it wasn't until 1920 that Oxford awarded women degrees, Cambridge somewhat later) there's a lot here I was bound to enjoy. I hadn't realised that 'Death on the Cherwell' was contemporary with 'Gaudy Night' until I read Stephen Booth's excellent introduction, comparisons between the two are interesting, I'm inclined to say that in some ways 'Death on the Cherwell' has aged rather better.
I was 13 when I first read 'Gaudy Night' (I can still remember retiring to bed with it one very wet weekend) and it made me fall in love with both the idea of Oxford and the possibility of higher education. Reading it again a couple of years ago I still think it's a brilliant description of academic life and harriet Vane remains a character I'm deeply attached too, but Sayers increasing infatuation with her detective, an underlying snobbery, and occasional mentions of eugenics were all distractions that reminded me of the books vintage and Sayers own shortcomings. 'Death on the Cherwell' isn't as ambitious in it's scope but there's not much in it that needs explanation, excuse, or apology.
Four students gather together on a boat house roof late one January afternoon with the object of forming a secret society dedicated to cursing the bursar. Disconcertingly for them just as they're about to swear an oath the dead body of the bursar floats past in her canoe, odder yet she's clearly drowned so what's she doing under the thwarts of the canoe... The police are called in but the girls are anxious to do their own investigating, they're also anxious to protect their own. Fortunately the Scotland yard man is both intelligent and sympathetic and without much trouble the students tell all they know and the mystery is quickly unravelled. It's a sad story with an interesting twist at the end which makes this stand out from the standard murder mystery. Apart from that Hay is also rather good on undergraduates - as she observes on page one "Undergraduates, especially those in their first year , are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human. Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood- earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again...". I live on the edge of a campus, it's a description I recognise. Hay definitely likes her undergraduates though (as do I for that matter, they make good neighbours) the group here are nice young women caught in that moment between childhood and adult life when everything is possible.
Hay doesn't really examine university life in the way that Sayers does, but curiously both express distaste for the journalistic habit of referring to women students as undergraduettes (I'm not surprised it seems to have really irritated the educated women of the day), and she also makes the point that Cambridge doesn't yet offer proper degrees for women, which puts it at a distinct disadvantage to Oxford. I enjoyed 'The Santa Klaus Murder' which the BL bought out last Christmas, but this book is much more, it really does make me regret that Hay only wrote 3 books and correspondingly pleased that she's back in print. It's light entertainment but almost everything about it is delightful (the one exception is an overly excitable foreign student) and as a piece of golden age detective fiction it feels very fresh.