Wednesday 26 August 2015

Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay is rather a mystery herself. The chief question being why did she write three detective stories in three years and then quit?
Remarkably little is known about Hay and I could find no pictures of her, which is strange when one considers that she was a contemporary of Dorothy L. Sayers and received an education that, in some respects, ran parallel to that of Sayers.
Hay was born  in Potters Bar, Middlesex (North London) in 1894, into a middle-class family, who were clearly willing and able to encourage their daughter to achieve an education that was unusual for a woman at that time. Hay was a student at St Hilda's College, Oxford, from 1913 until 1916 and Sayers was at Somerville, Oxford, from 1912-1915. Neither Hay nor Sayers would have graduated with degrees, because women were not permitted to be members of the university until 1920, when they were at last allowed to claim the degrees thatthey had earned.
After her time at St Hilda's, Hay seems to have returned to her primary love, the study and practise of rural crafts and, in 1927, she and her co-author, Helen Fitzrandolph published a wide-ranging and authoritative work, Rural Industries of England and Wales.
Hay was part of the generation of women who had lived through the tragic losses of the First World War. Hay had lost one of her brothers at the Battle of Jutland, in 1916. These young women had also seen their hopes of marriages decimated by the loss of young men in the War, but, in 1929, when she was thirty-five, Hay married Helen Fitzrandolph's brother, Archibald Menzies Fitzrandolph, a member of a wealthy and influential Canadian family.
It was during the years of her marriage to Archibald Fitzrandolph that Hay wrote and published three detective novels, Murder Underground (1934), Death on the Cherwell (1935) and The Santa Klaus Murder (1936). Hay's detective novels seem to have been well received. Indeed Dorothy L. Sayers wrote an encouraging review of Murder Underground in the Sunday Times in 1934: 'This detective novel is much more than interesting. The numerous characters are well differentiated, and include one of the most feckless, exasperating and lifelike literary men that ever confused a trail.'
In 1939 the Second World War broke out and Hay again suffered grievous loss. In 1939 her youngest brother was killed when his Tiger Moth crashed in the Malayan jungle and in 1940 she lost another brother, who died after being captured by the Japanese. Hay's husband, Archibald, had joined the RAF and was killed in a flying accident in 1943.
In 1921, The Rural Industries Bureau (RIB) was established by the Ministry of Agriculture. The purpose of the RIB was to develop rural industries by providing technical advice and assistance to country workshops. As well as various booklets and reports, it published a quarterly magazine, Rural Industries. This was an ideal very close to Hay's heart and she took up a position as a researcher for the RIB. The rest of Hay's life was devoted to her first love, the promotion of rural crafts. Under her married name, Mavis Fitzrandolph, Hay wrote and published many books about rural crafts, including 30 Crafts, written for the Women's Institute. She wrote numerous books about her passion, quilting, and won great respect for her work in developing the Welsh quilting industry.
Hay made her home in Gloucestershire and died in 1979, at the age of eighty-five. Her last book, Quilting was published in 1972. She showed no obvious desire to return to writing detective fiction.
To all appearances, despite the terrible losses that Hay suffered in the two World Wars, she went on to have a long and fulfilled life doing work that she loved. However, I am intrigued by the question of why Hay wrote three detective novels in three years and then abandoned crime writing.
While none of her crime novels can claim to be profound or ground-breaking, all three of them are pleasant and enjoyable reads, especially to lovers of the Golden Age, who are used to the language and manners of the 1920s and 1930s.
Murder Underground (1934) opens with the inhabitants of the Frampton Private Hotel, (which is, in reality a very ordinary boarding house) departing about their daily business. Amongst them is Miss Euphemia Pongleton, who 'pottered fussily out, hugging an enormous handbag and looking perhaps rather shabbier and more-out-of-date than usual.' When Betty Watson, another resident at the hotel informs her that it was a 'nice morning' Miss Pongleton 'wrinkled her nose as if she didn't like the smell of it.' This beautiful piece of characterisation tells us a great deal about Miss Pongleton. Despite her shabby appearance and parsimonious ways, Miss Pongleton is an affluent woman; she is also a very unpleasant, interfering person, who is fond of exerting power over other people. When she is discovered on the stairs of Belsize Park Station strangled by the lead belonging to her dog, Tuppy, her fellow residents are shocked but not distressed. Indeed, even Tuppy seems indifferent to his mistress' death. Most of the residents enjoy speculating about the crime, especially Mrs Daymer the novelist, but Betty Watson has more reason to care than most, as she is in love with Miss Pongleton's nephew, and probable heir, Basil Pongleton.
The police have several suspects. Chief amongst them is a young railway worker whose girlfriend works at the Frampton Hotel. Miss Pongleton had found out about a foolish, illegal act this young man had committed, and it is not clear whether she intended to report him to the police. However, the police also have good reason to suspect those who might benefit financially from Miss Pongleton's death: her nephew Basil and his cousin, Beryl. Although Beryl was not in the vicinity when Miss Pongleton died, her fiancĂ©, Gerry, admits to passing the old lady on the stairs, presumably minutes before her murder. Miss Pongleton was in the habit of altering her will whenever Basil annoyed her. As Basil is the 'feckless, exasperating' literary man referred to in Sayer's review,  this occurs with unfortunate regularity and leads to a confusing abundance of contradictory wills. Basil's foolish and inconsistent lies mean that he is soon suspected of his aunt's murder. His behaviour is very self-incriminating, especially when he convinces his cousin, Beryl, and his girlfriend, Betty, to cover for his indiscretions. This leads the unfortunate Inspector Caird to speculate that Miss Pongleton's murder was committed by a 'gang' of her relations and fellow residents.
For much of the book Inspector Caird has very little time on-stage. While he is conducting interviews in one room of the hotel, the reader is hearing about it second-hand, through the discussion and speculation of the other residents. Near the end of the book he emerges as a sensible, conscientious officer, who feels angry that the idiotic and selfish antics of Basil Pongleton have led a nice girl like Betty into trouble. However this is a book of amateur detectives and it is they who solve the crime.
Death on the Cherwell (1935) is set in Persephone College, Oxford. This fictional woman's college seems to be modelled on St Hilda's, where Hay was educated. The book opens with the death of the unpopular college bursar and follows the investigation into her death. It is presumably a coincidence that Death on the Cherwell was published in the same year as Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night. The two books have some things in common: both are set in fictional women's colleges and both address the still debated question of women's education and the necessity for women students to behave with impeccable propriety, very different from the standards required for young men. Another interesting common factor is that both Sayers and Hay object to the condescending term 'undergraduettes' which was favoured by newspaper reporters of the time. As Miss Cordell, Principal of Persephone College reflects, 'Respectable publicity was bad enough because newspaper reporters, however carefully instructed, were liable to break out into some idiocy about “undergraduettes” or “academic caps coquettishly set on golden curls.” But shameful publicity! A death mystery! This was terrible!'
In other ways Death on the Cherwell and Gaudy Night are very different. In Gaudy Night, although there is some interaction with undergraduates, the main action is set amongst the middle-aged dons. It is a novel from the viewpoint of adults. There are times when Death on the Cherwell strongly resembles a girls' adventure story. The action opens with a group of Persephone College first year undergraduates gathered together at the boat house to form a society to curse their unpopular bursar, Miss Denning. Imagine their horror when, a few minutes later, Miss Denning's canoe drifts up to the landing stage, with Miss Denning dead inside it, soaking wet, apparently drowned in her canoe. The girls decide to investigate. They are led by Sally Watson, sister of Betty Watson, who featured in Murder Underground. Betty and Basil also appear in this book, and it is a relief to see that Betty has become more assertive and Basil has grown up.
In this book the reader is allowed to follow the police investigation at first hand. On the first evening, the local inspector, Inspector Wythe, interviews the witnesses and is more impressed with Sally than she is with him: 'Trim and self-controlled she looked now, although her usual buoyant self-confidence had not quite returned. She had sleeked her brown hair and had donned – hastily, yet with a vague sense of fitting herself for a sombre occasion – a tailored, navy-blue frock. A nice sensible girl, thought the inspector, as he looked directly into her brown eyes.
Rather a stupid-looking man, thought Sally, after a brief inspection of his square, stolid face and reddish, toothbrush moustache.'
The local police are soon aided by Scotland Yard, in the person of Detective Inspector Braydon. Braydon proves to be an intelligent, hard-working and capable officer and it is not his fault that the rules of this style of detective fiction prevent him from being the one who solves the case. That honour, of course, is reserved for the amateur sleuths.
With Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell it seems that Hay had established her detective fiction style. This includes the murder of an unpleasant victim, which means that nobody really cares that she is dead and also means that there is a large number of potential killers to choose from. Those solving the crime include reasonably intelligent and hard-working police detectives who are always one step behind the motley band of enthusiastic amateurs. The story is set in a limited community, such as a private hotel or university college; it is told in the Third Person, Past Tense, and includes some lively, often flippant dialogue and well-observed, skilful descriptions.
In Hay's third book, The Santa Klaus Murder, the victim is Sir Osmond Melbury, a tyrannical patriarch who bullies his family into submission by threats of cutting them out of his will. Sir Osmond has purchased a Santa Claus suit and persuaded one of the guests to wear it and give out presents on Christmas Day. Sir Osmond's controlling manner extends even to the pronunciation of the character's name: 'I knew Sir Osmond was particular about us saying Santa Klaus; said we gave it up in the War, because it was German, but we oughtn't to mind now and Father Christmas was just silly.' As in Hay's previous books, the victim is unpleasant and many people wish him dead, and the setting is the closed community of a country house at Christmas. However the style of this book is very different from its predecessors. Approximately the first 20% of the book is occupied by First Person narrative accounts from five people who were in the house when the murder was committed and describe the days leading up to the murder. Much of the rest of the book is in the First Person narrative of Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable, although there are two later chapters in other characters' viewpoints. One of these viewpoints is that of Kenneth Stour, an actor who has recently returned from a triumphant tour abroad, who is allowed to insert himself into the investigation. Colonel Halstock indicates that Stour is a talented amateur detective who has been of use to the police before in investigations. Again the amateur detectives solve the case just ahead of the official investigators.
In my opinion, the style of The Santa Klaus Murder does not work as well as Hay's earlier books. When Wilkie Collins used 'witness statement' narratives in The Moonstone (1868) the reader knew what was happening from the beginning and the different narrating voices were clearly differentiated. In The Santa Klaus Murder it is easy to get muddled between narrators and it is not clearly explained why these people are giving these accounts, although matters improve when Colonel Halstock takes the main part of the narrative.
Hay's books are always an ensemble act, with amateur detectives emerging all over the place. Perhaps one of the reasons she did not continue writing detective fiction was that she could not decide what sort of detective she wished to spend her mystery writing career with, although there are several options. Betty, Sally and Basil would have made an enterprising and amusing detective trio. Suave, experienced Kenneth Stour could have been developed into an excellent series detective. However, my vote would have gone to the eccentric and irritating novelist Mrs Daymer from Murder Underground. Towards the end of the book, two sets of amateurs hit upon the truth at the same moment but it is Mrs Daymer who has the wit to spot an insignificant clue that is too nebulous to take to the police, and also has the determination to follow it up and collect the evidence: 'The implication which she saw in this discoloured record of an unimportant case of thirty years ago was so horrible and so fantastic that she could not bring herself to name the man whom it seemed to point to.' It is possible, if Hay had wanted to develop her, Mrs Daymer might have made a detective to rival Gladys Mitchell's Mrs Bradley.
Of course, all this is irrelevant, because Hay never created a series detective or a series of detective stories. One can only speculate on Hay's reasons for abandoning detective fiction after such a short career, although it seems clear that she had a fulfilling career in the field of crafts that had been her first love. Now a new generation of readers have the chance to enjoy her books thanks to the British Library's policy of republishing almost forgotten authors. This is very good news indeed and Hay's books are well worth reading, especially for lovers of Golden Age mysteries.

Published by the British Library:
Murder Underground, ISBN: 978-0-7123-5726-5
Death on the Cherwell: ISBN: 978-0-7123-5712-8
The Santa Klaus Murder: ISBN: 978-0-7123-5712-8

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