It’s time for another middle grade novel review here on ronanwills dot wordpress dot com, your top source for MG news on the world wide web!
Murder Most Unladylike is the first in a planned series of junior detective novels (due to be released in the US as “Murder Is Bad Manners” for some reason) set in the 1930s. It’s also the debut novel from author Robin Stevens and a NaNoWriMo project, thus validating all of my life choices up to this point.
The story follows two girls named Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells who start up a secret detective society at Deepdean, their delightfully twee English boarding school. Hazel, the “Secretary” of the society and the story’s narrator, is from Hong Kong and was sent to Deepdean by her anglophile father only to discover that the boarding school experience involves a lot more racism and complicated social hierarchies than she had expected. This combined with some ingrained self-confidence issues makes her something of an outcast among the other girls, a factor that’s mitigated mainly due to Daisy’s influence- because Daisy is the queen of queen bees, rich, massively spoiled and dragging along a posse of infatuated fangirls everywhere she goes. Despite their differences and the fact that Daisy is kind of an asshole the two of them bond over the fact that they see through the elaborate facades each of them puts up to try and fit in with their peers, with the Detective Society serving as a kind of protective bubble where they can exercise their considerable intelligence without invoking the scorn of their classmates.
One day in their third year they finally get a real case when Hazel stumbles on the body of a dead teacher. Said body vanishes before they can alert the proper authorities, which can only mean one thing- there’s a murderer prowling the school, and due to a tangled snarl of adult drama and romantic scandals among the staff pretty much everyone looks suspicious. What follows is more or less classic old fashioned mystery fare, with the girls systematically trying to form an alibi for each suspect, narrowing the list down until they can hit on the real culprit. The story develops into what I believe is scientifically referred to as a Ripping Yarn, with lots of shocking twists and surprising developments. And a thick layer of Englishness. Pip pip cheerio.
So when I picked up this book I was expecting a lightweight, kid-friendly murder mystery. To an extent it is exactly that- this is after all a book about plucky kid detectives solving crimes- but there’s a surprising amount going on below the surface. Hazel’s backstory touches on issues of class and colonialism, the social dynamics of the adult and student populations of the school and how they intermingle are complex and nuanced, homosexuality among the staff and students is brought up casually and frankly. The story still takes place in a nostalgic fantasy world, but it’s one with some of the rougher edges filed off and the elements not (for some reason) usually considered child-friendly included. None of these elements are examined in a particularly deep manner, but it makes me wonder what territory the series might explore in later books as the characters get older and more capable of engaging with the adult world.
(Of course the big red flag here is that we’re talking about a white author writing about a girl from Hong Kong in the 1930s. I’m obviously not the person to either condemn or give the book a thumbs up and I couldn’t find anyone stating that Hazel’s portrayal is stereotypical, but obviously take that with a large grain of salt)
The book’s handling of the mystery nicely works around the limitations of the setting and the character’s ages, in that a lot of the action is taken up with the girls re-evaluating their suspects in light of new information rather than snooping around at night with flashlights (although there is in fact a scene in which they snoop around with flashlights). It seems to harken back fittingly to the classic detective fiction that Daisy is convinced she’s living in the middle of. My only complaint is that a major piece of backstory late in the book is delivered a bit clumsily- there’s just enough setup to stop it from seeming like it comes completely from nowhere, and it’s clear that Daisy and Hazel would have been able to solve the murder without the information, but the motive is still ham-fisted.
At the core of the story is Daisy and Hazel themselves, and the complicated dynamics between them. Daisy is arrogant, overly assertive and at times bullying; she constantly treats Hazel roughly, at times leaving bruises; and while she never displays any openly racist opinions, it’s hard to look at her automatic assumption of Hazel’s inferiority and not interpret it in that light. It’s clear throughout the book that some part of Hazel is aware of all of this (she reacts with uncharacteristic violence when a classmate suggests that Daisy is only hanging around with her to make herself look more interesting), but she puts up with it for a whole host of fairly nuanced reasons. She’s grown up on a diet of English culture and was raised in a colonial environment that teaches her to venerate that culture above her own. Daisy is the perfect English girl she on some level wants to be or believes that she should be. It’s a friendship that seems to be on an inherently volatile course and I’m looking forward to seeing how (or whether) the situation plays out to its logical conclusion in later books. Certainly there are enough seeds planted here to indicate that it could go a number of interesting directions.
More mysterious is Daisy’s reasons for wanting to be friends with Hazel. A cynical reading would suggest she wants someone compliant she can bully, but there are enough moments of genuine affection and concern on her part to suggest that she does actually like Hazel, despite all evidence to the contrary (this also stops her from becoming outright unsympathetic). In fact Daisy is, despite being one of the two primary protagonists, a fairly mysterious character. Her uncle appears to be some kind of spy and the glimpse of her mother we get at the end of the book suggests that her spoiled behavior might possibly be compensating for something.
The only flaw with Murder Most Unladylike is the prose; the character’s voices are well realized and the humor is witty, but Hazel as the narrator has a tendency not to use contractions, which I’m assuming was an attempt to render the way a posh 1930s schoolgirl would write. It’s not a huge problem, but it makes the narration feel stilted at times and it bothered me often enough to get irritating.
I have to add my usual disclaimer when reviewing middle grade books, namely that if you’re not inclined to read novels aimed at kids then this isn’t going to make you change your mind. But if that doesn’t apply to you, I’d say Murder Most Unladylike is a ton of fun and the start of a promising series. With two more books coming out next year, we’ll get to see whether it lives up to the considerable potential displayed here soon.