Curated playlists on iTunes that focus on a specific artist or genre are generally organized into Essentials, Next Steps and Deep Cuts. If you were to organize classic British mysteries, the Poisoned Pen Press British Library Crime Classics are the Deep Cuts. There would be widespread agreement on the Essentials and Next Steps, but defining the Deep Cuts takes a certain amount of courage and skill. After all, they must appeal to modern readers despite their age, yet unlike the Essentials, they have not become integrated into the cultural literacy canon. We know Poirot, Wimsey, and Inspector Alleyn, the amateur detectives of Mavis Doriel Hay’s Murder Underground are very deep cuts indeed.
It all begins with the murder of Miss Euphemia Pongleton whose Dickensian name sets the tone for this amusing murder mystery. A rigid-minded woman with money, Miss Pongleton used it to reward and punish Basil Pongleton, her nephew who seems a bit of a Wooster without a Jeeves, hapless, feckless, reckless and ultimately suspicious. He would make such a great suspect if we didn’t like him so much. He is entranced by and entrancing to the lovely Betty Watson whom he involves in his slapstick machinations to appear less suspicious. He met Betty while visiting his aunt at her home at the Frampton Private Hotel, a highly respectable boarding house that was home to his aunt, his cousin Beryl, his new love Betty, and the Frumps, the various boarders who all play a small, but cumulative important role in solving the murder.
This is a classic British mystery so it is scrupulously fair. Much of the solution relies on precision timing, so there is a bit more attention paid to train schedules, time of day, and alibis than I would have liked. I felt like I needed a notebook to jot down the clues. However, as important as time may have been to proving the case, the solution lies in character, not clues. If you are paying attention, you will know the murderer before the police and you will see how cleverly Hay succeeds in weaving the scattered bits of information all the Frumps hold, some of it seemingly trivial and irrelevant and how beautifully and naturally it comes together to provide a very satisfactory solution.
I think I would have loved to have dinner with Mavis Doriel Hay. Her characters are a delight and she had a wicked sense of humor. It’s all in the details, you know, as when Mrs. Daymer explains to Beryl’s young fiancé whom she has lassoed into an expedition to the Midlands for clues that she need not fear the rain. “My clothing is pure wool, handspun and handwoven—sheer craftsmanship without any damaging mechanical processes. The material retains the natural grease of the sheep, which is, of course, impervious to rain.” Ah, the natural grease of the sheep. Which is mentioned soon after as the likely perfume in the country air, later yet when Mrs. Daymer “strode on under the protective natural grease of the sheep” and much, much later, where the Frumps and the young people come together to solve the crime while Mrs. Daymer exhaled the “natural grease of the sheep.” The fourth time it came up, even though it was the denouement, or next thing to it, I was laughing loudly to find Hay enjoying herself so much.
It’s such a small thing, but typical of the quiet, deep humor of character that enriches this book. Equally hilarious, the conversation with Basil’s landlady who keeps telling the reporter she does not talk about her tenants while spilling every bean she ever had and some imaginary beans as well. This is a book rich with the humane compassion and love of people that makes for character-driven humor and mystery. If you love the classic British mystery, this is one Deep Cut you should definitely enjoy. It inspires confidence in me that the entire series will be enjoyable.
Murder Underground will be released by Poisoned Pen Press on November 1st. I was provided an electronic version for review from the publisher through NetGalley.