Book name: Murder Underground
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay
Publisher: British Library Crime Classics (2014)
Format: Print, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Murder mystery
Publication Date: 1934
Star Rating: 4/5
I just love how the British Library has reissued a steady stream of forgotten classics from the Golden Age of murder mysteries under the imprint ‘British Library Crime Classics’.
I visited the British Library during a recent trip to London so I took the opportunity to pick up a couple more of their titles from their bookshop.
Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three murder mysteries during the Thirties. Murder Underground is set in London.
The others were a classic country-house murder mystery and one set in a fictional Oxford college.
Murder Underground centres around a boarding house of the kind typical in cities during the period.
The boarders each have a room, eat together in the dining room and generally become a family, with their landlady as matriarch.
The murder victim, Euphemia Pongleton, lives in the Frampton Private Hotel.
The old lady has never married, and she is perpetually threatening to cut off her nephew Basil, who is intermittently her heir, in favour of her niece Beryl.
The other residents of the boarding house are somewhat younger and generally work in the City, a clerical job or in business.
There is also the landlady, Mrs Bliss, and her maid, Nellie. Nellie’s young man Bob is also a frequent visitor.
Basil Pongleton finds his way to the Frampton on a regular basis: partly to placate his aunt and partly because he is romantically involved with Betty, who lives there.
Miss Pongleton is strangled one morning on the stairs of Belsize Park tube station. It is an eccentricity of hers to always takes the stairs. The station is very deep, so most people take the lift.
Miss Pongleton is not discovered until the afternoon, when her landlady becomes concerned about her and goes to make enquiries.
It is particularly cruel that the old lady was strangled with her dog’s leash.
Much of the initial investigation centres around who could have stolen the leash from the hall table at the Frampton.
Basil immediately comes under suspicion since he is possibly due to inherit the victim’s fortune.
However, Nellie’s young man is arrested for burglary after a stolen brooch with his name on its wrapping is found in Miss Pongleton’s pocket.
Bob gave the brooch to Nellie, but Miss Pongleton spotted it as too expensive for a maid and she winkled the truth about the burglary out of Bob.
The police conclude that Bob murdered the old lady to keep her quiet.
However, Basil admits to Mr Slocomb (one of the residents of the Frampton and Miss Pongleton’s financial adviser) that he was on the stairs and found his aunt murdered.
It is very difficult for the reader to like Basil, but Mavis Doriel Hay seems determined that we should.
Basil lies to the police and to his girlfriend, Betty. He lies to his friends about where he was during the day and tries to concoct an alibi by going to their home just after finding his aunt’s body.
It never occurs to Basil to raise the alarm, and the reader is left to suspect that he may have been involved in the murder.
More than this, Basil simply doesn’t deserve the money he stands to inherit, regardless of whether he murdered to obtain it.
However, this point is carefully managed when Beryl, Basil’s cousin, confirms that the brother who left Miss Pongleton her fortune always intended it to go to Basil when she died.
Despite many good reasons to suspect Basil, our interest is led off in other directions and a number of other suspects emerge.
A successful murder mystery generally features a close-knit group of family or pseudo-family, many of whom have a motive for the murder. Murder Underground sets this group within a phenomenon of the time (the boarding house) that provides a suitable setting very different to the classic country house.
The boarding house can house enough people to provide a list of suspects, plus the frequent visitors Basil and Beryl (who both stand to inherit) gives a literal family to strengthen the family feel of the boarding house.
It was a great idea to set a murder mystery in a boarding house, and Murder Underground really worked.
The murder itself takes place on the stairs of the nearest Tube station, Belsize Park. This is quite an unusual station in that it is very deep and has a long flight of stairs that are seldom used.
Mavis Doriel Hay knew this station well because she and her husband lived nearby.
I loved Murder Underground. Not just because I used to use Belsize Park Tube station daily when I worked in London, but because the plot was tight and effective.
The murderer was a surprise, given the complexity of the story. However, the foreshadowing was utterly credible and the story was very enjoyable.
Thank you for reading my review.
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