Published in 1934, Mavis Doriel Hay wrote a thoroughly charming murder mystery. Reading it today is, no doubt, every bit as entertaining but it also shines a light on the social history of boarding houses from an era when landladies guarded the front door like sentry guards, dinner was served at a specific time in meagre kitchens, and a maid would bring a cup of tea to your room if you needed one.
Poor Miss Pongleton, with the delightful first name of Euphemia. Within the book's first pages the spinster is discovered lying on the stairs of Belsize Park tube station. She has been strangled with a dog leash belonging to her well-fed terrier, Tuppy (short for Tuppence). Since Miss Pongleton was on her way to a dentist appointment the process of elimination begins as to who spied the leash in its usual spot last? There is also no small degree of sympathy for someone who has not only had the misfortune to be murdered but that their final destination was the dentist's chair. Interestingly (or perhaps worryingly), the dentist isn't referred to as Dr. but simply as Mr Crampit.
The residents at the Frampton Private Hotel have affectionately labeled themselves 'The Frumps' and could easily be the younger version of Barbara Pym's characters in Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. There is Mrs. Bliss, the proprietress, a pompous Mr. Slocomb, Cissie Fain and Betty Watson who work together in the City, an extremely bohemian Mrs. Daymer who likes her fibres practically straight from the sheep's back, and Mr. Granger, a newcomer.
Nellie is a maid-of-all-work and we know this instantly because of her lower-class accent. The poor thing is beside herself when her boyfriend becomes a suspect. There is another character, Basil, who brings a delightful level of comedy and almost instantly had me picturing this story being performed as a play in a West End theatre. Basil is Miss Pongleton's nephew and while she was frugal, accumulating a small fortune, it is a constant effort for Basil to keep the wolf from the door. As a male, he is generally assumed to be the heir to Miss Pongleton's fortune but when his moments of selfishness, or stupidity, raise his aunt's ire her Will is changed in favour of Basil's cousin Beryl...for the time being.
This is the third book I've read in this series of classic crime stories reissued by the British Library and easily my favourite. Having spent two afternoons in Hampstead during my recent holiday in London, Murder Underground highlights some of the areas I spent time in. The strolls past Downshire Hill or the heath were brought back to life and apologies to poor Miss Pongleton but her final resting place at Highgate Cemetery ticked another box when it comes to fascinating London landmarks.
Mavis Doriel Hay has written a thoroughly entertaining and completely charming murder mystery. Hardcore fans of a more serious vein of this genre will blanch at the very notion there is such a thing but I highly doubt they stop here looking for inspiration when it comes to reading material. And thank you to Rachel for suggesting this book - it was exactly what I was looking for!
Picture credit here