Murder Underground – Mavis Doriel Hay

From the British Library Crime Classics series which currently stands at around ninety titles and are a highly successful attempt to bring largely forgotten mystery and crime novels, mainly from the golden age of crime writing from the 1920’s to the 1940’s back into the public view. They all have this very attractive cover style and make a lovely collection on the shelf. Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three crime novels in the 1930’s and this was her first, originally published in 1934, and the first thing you note whilst reading it is how odd it is especially around the treatment of the police and especially their interviews with witnesses. Normally such interviews form an important part of the narrative but here we never get to ‘sit in’ and hear what they have to say. Initially at the boarding hotel where most of the action takes place all the residents are gathered together in the drawing room and the unnamed inspector is in the smoking room calling each one in in turn but the narrative never leaves the drawing room, what we get instead is chit chat about what might be happening in the smoking room. After this the police literally fade into the background being reduced to figures following various characters but almost never being involved in anything until after page 200 when the inspector, now finally given a name, appears again.

The lack of police or indeed anyone who would be recognised as the classic amateur detective so beloved by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many others of this period is very unusual instead all of the residents of the small private hotel where the victim had lived have a go at solving the mystery in a piecemeal way and the reader is slowly presented with whatever they have discovered or deduced. This lack of the ‘normal’ structure I found frustrating at first but gradually grew to enjoy the atypical format with facts seemingly popping up at random as the various characters proceed in their individual investigations. The case should really be relatively simple, The old lady victim, Miss Euphemia Pongleton (sadly Hay’s major failing is the use of ridiculous names), is found near the bottom of the stairs at Belsize Park underground station with her dog’s lead entangled round her neck although she had not taken her dog with her and a stolen brooch is in her bag. There are lifts at Belsize Park so the long flight of stairs is rarely used although Miss Pongleton was known to always take them as she disliked lifts. However it turns out that three of the Frampton Hotel’s residents, or associates of residents including Miss Pongleton’s nephew and presumed heir Basil, also used those stairs that morning despite it not even being the closest station to the hotel.

The brooch she had confiscated from one of the hotel’s staff who had received it from her boyfriend who had in turn been given it as proceeds from the robbery that he had been conned into being the getaway driver for. It was wrapped in paper with his name written on the outside and to add to the suspicion that he might be guilty of the murder itself he worked as a porter at Belsize Park and was known to be on the platform at the bottom of the stairs as Miss Pongleton descended. Add to the tangle of clues a missing string of pearls and an apparent recent will, also missing, disinheriting Basil; along with how the dog lead made it round the neck of Miss Pongleton when it should be hanging on the coat stand in the Frampton and you are certainly not short of ways of investigating the murder and several prospective dead ends. The actual murderer is revealed near the end although it was a character I had taken a dislike to right at the start so I can’t say it was much of a surprise but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless.

Hay up until the point of writing this novel had previously stuck to her speciality which was rural crafts and after WWII she went back to writing on this subject never again to produce a murder mystery. Her only two other titles in this genre ‘Death on the Cherwell’ in 1935 and ‘The Santa Klaus Murder’ from 1936 are also available in the British Library collection

The Original Alice

Almost everyone knows the children’s tale Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll either having read the book, or seen or heard, one of the many adaptations over the years.  Most readers will know that Alice was a real person, one of the daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church college at Oxford and the stories were told to entertain her and her sisters.  They will also know that Lewis Carroll was really the reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a 24 year old mathematics lecturer at Christ Church when he first met the Liddell’s. But what is less well known is that when the stories were first written down they were intended to just be a one off book as a gift to Alice and the title was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

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The book was handwritten and illustrated by Dodgson and was given to Alice for Christmas in 1864 when she was 12 years old, although he originally came up with most of the story when she was 10 on a trip up the river for a picnic. Alice treasured the little book for decades but eventually in 1928 at the age of 75 and now a widow needing money she sold it at auction for £15,000 (approximately £860,000 today). The book was bought by Dr Rosenbach, who was an American book dealer, and he subsequently sold it in the US.   The private collector who owned it died in 1948 and the book was again put up for auction this time making $50,000 (roughly $508,000 or £363,000 nowadays) and Dr Rosenbach was the top bidder at this auction as well.

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This time however was to be the last time it will ever come to the market. Several American benefactors led by book collector Lessing Rosenwald obtained the book in order to give it to Britain in thanks for the gallantry of the British people during the Second World War.  In November 1948 the book was brought on the liner The Queen Elizabeth across the Atlantic and presented to the British Museum with the Archbishop of Canterbury representing the country by receiving it.  The book is now part of the national collection (catalogue ref MS 45700).

In 1997 The British Library published a book by Sally Brown entitled The Original Alice, which now sadly out of print but fairly easy to find on the second hand market.  This tells the story of how Alice came to be written and compares Alice’s Adventures Under Ground to Alice in Wonderland with examples as to how the books differ.

20170116 The Original Alice 1 The illustrations of the original book included here are from another out of print edition, a beautiful leather bound facsimile of the original produced in a limited edition run of just 3750 copies by the Folio Society in 2008, this is somewhat more tricky to track down but it is a beautiful thing to own and read.  It comes in a lovely box with a ribbon to lift the book out with.

 

Although he never intended publication Dodgson did pass the book to his friend, the children’s novelist George MacDonald, to cast his professional eye over, before giving it to Alice. MacDonald’s children so enjoyed the book that Dodgson was eventually persuaded to publish.  He significantly rewrote the tales, removing a lot of references that only really made sense to the Liddell family and adding Pig and Pepper along with The Mad Tea Party. These additions and revisions to the original text almost doubled the length and took the book up from 18000 to 35000 words.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was finally published in November 1865 in an edition of 2000 copies but in a final twist these were withdrawn as the illustrator, John Tenniel, was unhappy with the quality of the reproductions of his pictures.  This makes the handful of copies that still exist one of the rarest of all children’s books.  The book was finally available to the public in 1866 and was an immediate success.  Alice’s Adventures Under Ground has been printed several times in the intervening 150 years but only the Folio Society have produced a true facsimile of the book with the leather binding and colour illustrations where appropriate, however it is worth searching out a copy of the text as first written as it gives a view of the story that Alice herself first heard and it is quite different to the text that we all know.