This isn’t one of those books that has been advertised with the sticker reading “if you like Blyton, you’ll love this,” but it seems to have gained an imaginary sticker of recommendation from Blyton fans nonetheless. I’m aware this book was not written as an homage to Blyton, nor to be aimed at the Blyton fan market but this is a Blyton blog and so I will be writing this review as a loose comparison to Blyton’s works.
THE FIND-OUTERS MEET MALORY TOWERS
With that in mind Murder Most Unladylike melds two of Blyton’s popular themes: boarding schools and a mystery.
Deepdean, the boarding school, resembles Malory Towers or St Clare’s. It has mostly female teachers, one or two male ones, the requisite handy-man, headmistress, matrons, a san, dorm rooms, a few hundred well-to-do girls, a gym, common room and all the other basics. It differs, however, in that many of the mistresses live out – and this is quite important to the plot at times. I (as a reader of several boarding school books) wonder how the school managed to run with most of the staff off-campus at nights and possibly weekends.
There are many familiar elements like lacrosse, hockey, Mam’zelle, gym knickers and so on, and some unfamiliar ones. The girls have a bunbreak every morning, which is exactly as it sounds, a break to eat a biscuit in. They call the lower school shrimps (Malory Towers tended to call them babies or just the lower formers). They go to prep like Blyton’s girls, but they also have socs or societies after class to do extra activities.
THE GLORIOUS NINETEEN THIRTIES
Unlike modern editions of Blyton which have had many of these old-fashioned words erased, Murder Most Unladylike makes no apology for being set in the 1930s. (Blyton’s boarding school books were set five to ten years later than this, which may account for some of the differences). Murder Most Unladylike retains pre-decimal currency, maids at school and home, Fry’s chocolate and many other things that children today might be unfamiliar with. Some things are given brief explanations in the text and as the book is written from the POV of Hazel writing a ‘log’ of events, it works. There is also a glossary at the back, again written by Hazel for the readers’ benefit and explaining phrases like hols, matron, bunbreak and so on. I think that would be a great addition to Blyton’s books if it would reduce unnecessary updating to the main text.
Anyway, on to the mystery element now. It is admittedly a different type of mystery to anything Blyton’s characters ever had to solve. A the title suggests, this is a murder mystery.
To outline the plot briefly: Hazel (one half of the Wells and Wong detective agency) finds Miss Bell dead in the gym. Has she fallen from the balcony, or was she pushed? They can’t be sure as when Hazel brings help, the body has gone. Nobody at the school is concerned as Miss Bell has left a resignation letter on the headmistress’s desk.
Being a detective agency Hazel and the Sherlock to her Watson, Daisy, decide that it is clearly murder. Since everyone else believes that Miss Bell has simply upped and left, they realise they are the only ones that can solve her murder.
They are very organised, and like the Find-Outers, draw up a list of suspects and go looking for motives and alibis. They are aided by the fact that it can only be a staff member that is responsible (a slight leap of logic, but believable, so we go with it) and that gives them a finite list of suspects. The Find-Outers and Secret Seven had an entire village of possibilities (never mind that anyone could have travelled in from anywhere!) but Wells and Wong are able to focus on half a dozen names, and the eyes of a few hundred girls to document their whereabouts. The fact that the teachers live-out is a hindrance, however, as they are unable to search anyone’s room for evidence. Luckily many clues are to be found hidden in locker rooms and other places around the school.
The mystery is actually a very satisfying one – and it kept me guessing all the way along. I admit I was rarely more than half a step ahead of the girls as it went along. The fact that they can’t agree on who still a suspect helps, as it muddies the waters at times and leaves you not knowing what’s happening. Alibis are confirmed one minute, then knocked down the next when another piece of information comes to light. Daisy’s logic can be a little flawed at times, especially when she is so keen to accuse someone of the crime so that her favourite teacher cannot be responsible, but these are fairly realistic behaviours for a young girl.
The suggested motives are, I would say, more mature than those you might see in a Blyton. Blyton tended to go for easy to understand ones like desperation or poverty, some jealousy, revenge, greed and simple cases of people being bad’uns. Murder, being a much more serious crime than the theft of a painting or sending poison letters, naturally involves some more complex reasons. Some are of a romantic nature – jealousy from a jilter lover, fear of a lover going back to someone else, others are professional as there is a fight going on over the position of deputy-head of the school. The girls seem to have quite a grown-up understanding of these issues – as well as the secret relationship between two female teachers. No word is ever applied to these women, but one is jealous of the other when she finds a male suitor, and it is said that one has unfashionably short hair which is very relevant.
There are some red-herrings along the way and several times you think the mystery has been solved only for it to be proven entirely wrong. So wrong, in fact, a second murder occurs, and confuses things even more.
The girls feel exceptionally guilty about this as they feel it is partly their fault. I rather agree, as they (well, mostly Daisy) blundered in, vague accusations flying, and upset someone so much that they ended up getting murdered. It’s not entirely their fault, however, as the person in question was a grown-up and should have dealt with it a bit better!
The resolution to the mystery is quite a good one, as the girls do solve it (with a bit of luck) and then find themselves fleeing down the school corridors from the murderer, who has turned from perfectly pleasant to chillingly dangerous in the turn of a page. Naturally, they throw themselves into further danger by deciding to sneak along to the denouement (Blyton’s cast could never resist this either) and several other secrets are let out of the bag at the same time.
The final, fully explained solution, proves the girls were on the right track with half of their earlier assumptions, and then of course that they got the murderer right as well. In addition to that, little pieces of information from earlier in the book have sudden relevance beyond being mere gossip or ghost stories which is always nice.
In conclusion: a solid mystery in a nice old-fashioned boarding school. If you like Blyton, Nancy Drew, Helen Moss or Malcom Saville, you might well like this too. If you don’t like those (firstly: why are you reading this?) you might still like it as it’s a good book.