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Book Review : Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay (British Library )


This book is one of the new editions of the successful British Library Crime Classic series. This is the third book by Mavis Hay that the British Library has re-published, having already re-published two of Hay’s novels “Death on the Cherwell” and “The Santa Klaus Murder”.  Mavis Doriel Hay (1894-1979) was a novelist during what was considered the golden age of British crime fiction. Her three detective novels were first published in the 1930’s.

Murder Underground was the first mystery book written by Mavis Doriel Hay and is set in North London around the area frequented by the Northern Line. When Miss Pongleton is found murdered on the stairs of Belsize Park station, her fellow boarders at the Frampton hotel set out to find the culprit.

The book is almost a cross between Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse, and although set in North London it has a gentle rural feel displayed by the leading characters, their day to day experiences and the description of the local area. Whilst there is no Miss Marple or Poirot, the amateur sleuths of the Frampton Hotel attempt to make sense of the murder, whilst the bumbling antics of the murdered woman’s nephew almost give the reader a sense of comic relief.

Unlike many crime/mystery novels, Murder Underground has no central character; Hay cleverly transports the reader into the  thoughts and feelings of our cast, thus we are able to gain insights into their motives and secrets. Hay, gives the reader a real sense of how the ‘well to do’ live in 1930’s Britain, the Frampton Hotel is a place for ‘gentle and respectable’ residents, where Mrs Bliss ‘cares’ for her residents with a sense of superiority and condescension, although the reader should be able to detect a more earthy upbringing of the said lady. The murderer is finally revealed by a combination of events, and peace is restored and the threads of romance interspersed in the novel come to fruition.

Murder Underground does not have the gore of modern crime/murder fiction, but in its gentle way the plot offers a distinctly different experience. One of Hay’s strengths in this novel is the way she illustrates to the reader a sense of Britain in the 1930’s, especially the changing of social structures and the uncertainties of the time. Ultimately I agree with P D James who suggests “The detective stories of the interwar years were paradoxical. They might deal with violent death, but essentially they were novels of escape.”

Murder Underground offers the modern reader an entertaining escape back to the 1930’s, this novel will especially appeal to the fans of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Although Hay never reaches the highs of those novelists, she does possess a sense of comedy that is rarely seen in this genre.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like further information of buy a copy of the book, visit the British Library shop here

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