My Sunday best this week is a gripping locked-room mystery, starring two intrepid schoolgirl detectives.
The Wells and Wong series of murder mysteries, featuring youthful Detective Society members Daisy and Hazel, got off to a superb start last year with Murder Most Unladylike, set in the regimented environment of Deepdean, a 1930s boarding school for girls. In book two, Arsenic for Tea, Daisy’s own aristocratic family fell under suspicion as she and Hazel spent their holidays together at Fallingford, her ancestral pad. Now Deepdean's finest are taking to the tracks, in the exotic confines of the Orient Express.
This time round, Daisy is accompanying Hazel and her father on holiday – but they’re under Mr Wong’s firm instructions not to attempt any detective work. Instead, they’re to behave in a civilised, ladylike manner, all the way to Istanbul. But it’s evident from the outset that everyone in their carriage has something to hide, from secretive magician Il Mysterioso to ill-tempered diet-pill magnate William Daunt. And, when a piercing shriek rips through the train, the Detective Society are on the scene, ready to attempt their first locked-cabin mystery…
First Class Murder is a delightful homage to Agatha Christie, by way of Enid Blyton and Angela Brazil – but it’s by no means uncritical, or blinkered by nostalgia. Where the Queen of Crime disconcerts contemporary readers with her casual racism, Stevens’ narrator Hazel quietly analyses and deals with the assumptions made about her because she’s Chinese, just as she has done from the beginning of the series. Revelling in pitch-perfect period detail – ‘rich, smooth, golden wood, picked out in beautiful floral marquetry’ – and the delicate pastries on offer in the dining car, we still remain connected to the reality that sees Hazel and her father casually shouldered aside, despite their smart travel clothing, and to the gathering clouds of European anti-Semitism.
Although, to me, the hinge of the murder mystery was rather too easy to spot, I found the development of Hazel’s relationship with her father – austere and strict, but profoundly proud of his intelligent daughter – thoughtful and moving, imbuing this rich and satisfying series with another layer of nuance and emotion. Fans of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Rooftoppers, Sherlock Holmes, and anyone who likes involving mysteries, told with compelling, deceptive simplicity, should take a ticket for First Class Murder forthwith.