Wednesday, 13 May 2015

A review of Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

It’s amazing to think that a girl’s boarding school in the 1930s could sound quite so much like the prep school I attended at the very beginning of the Twentieth Century, but it seems like some of the these values will always be engrained into parts of the British education system. I did find it eerily coincidental that the book includes a character called Felicity and that I had a games teacher called Mrs Hopkins when I was at school, too. Fluke details aside, I think that everyone, children and adults alike, will find something they can relate to in this very easy going novel. We might not all be the daughters of Lords or find ourselves in a different country miles away from our families, but we do all know what it feels like to be an outsider trying to fit in.

The story is told from the point of view of Hazel Wong, a foreign student who gradually becomes part of the institution herself. We’ll forgive the author for choosing a name which sounds an awful lot like Hazel’s country of origin, Hong Kong. There is a lot more to her characterisation than being purely an Asian stereotype.

There is a strong anti-bulling message which is refreshing to see in books for children and comforting to read to as an adult. The book promotes all sorts of lessons to its readers: women can be strong; children can know as much as adults do; it’s not ok to persecute others for being different; you should never be afraid to stand up to your friends and things may not always be as they seem. That’s quite a lot of moral messaging to cram into a relatively short murder mystery!

Murder aside, this representation of school in England is not one which every reader will immediately recognise. The boarding school rhetoric and the sheltered bubble in which the girls live is not an accurate portrayal of the average education in Britain. But not all fiction needs to be entirely representative. There is a sense of nostalgia in the text, and the boarding school setting makes it much more likely that Wells and Wong’s Detective Society could actually prosper.

I grew up reading Enid Blyton and JK Rowling and my fictional escapism was often located in boarding schools in the country. The experiences of these children were always wildly different from my own but that’s why I enjoyed reading the books. I want to avoid saying that Murder Most Unladylike is Malory Towers meets Sherlock Holmes, it is much more than that, but I can’t get the image of Daisy and Hazel running around in deerstalkers and hiding drawing pins on teachers’ chairs out of my head.

It’s not a gritty, hard-hitting novel which deals with the injustice of the education system in Britain, but it is jolly good fun and a very entertaining read. I will certainly be buying the next books in the series.

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