When their headmistress and her brother die suddenly during Sunday dinner, the girls of St. Etheldreda’s School For Young Ladies immediately suspect foul play. But if they call the police, the school will be closed and they will be packed back to school. So they decide to bury the bodies in the backyard and carry on as if nothing happened…
What tripped me up about this book is that I didn’t know it would be a farce. And I mean that in the sense of “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations” (thank you, Oxford English Dictionary) which is exactly what the author was going for. Except that I didn’t know. I went in expecting a straight mystery in which the girls would be investigating the murders, so I was rather puzzled when one of them put on her dead headmistress’ clothes and impersonated her without any of the neighbours realizing there’s anything amiss. Even when I adjusted my expectations, there was a constant back and forth because the book wanted to be a farce, but it also wanted to take itself seriously. “Hey, isn’t it funny that Alice dressed up as a 60yo woman, but stop laughing now because we’re having a deep conversation about life and death.” There are some authors who can be humorous and poignant at the same time (Pratchett comes to mind) but this author can’t quite pull it off and the effect is constant emotional whiplash.
About the crude characterization bit. I’m not sure if that bit was intentional on the author’s part, but that’s how it turned out to be. There are seven girls in the book and especially at the beginning they’re impossible to keep straight without the adjective that’s always attached to their name. Especially since the book starts in the middle of things, with two people dying over poisoned veal, and there are no introductions whatsoever. The girls just start talking, and good luck telling apart Dear Roberta from Dull Martha at that stage. Unfortunately, even when you do remember all the names, the girls’ personalities don’t go much far than those adjectives. Smooth Kitty is the closest thing to a protagonist, being the ringleader and the one with the most plans, so she gets a bunch of scenes and a bit more characterization. Disgraceful Mary Jane, Stout Alice and Pocked Louise also have a lot of scenes and show at least some depth of character. The last three girls are completely forgettable and only there to make up the numbers. (Also, according to the illustrations Dear Roberta is the one in the center despite having like two lines and no relevance whatsoever, while Smooth Kitty is on the far right. That makes no sense at all and I get the feeling someone bungled up the text under each illustration.)
Don’t get me wrong, this book is not a total trainwreck. I enjoyed the girls (at least the ones with a personality) and the farcical elements did make me laugh out loud despite the fact that I was reading it on a train and people were staring. It’s just that I feel personally affronted. It’s a book about a girls’ boarding school, I love books about girls’ boarding schools, and yet I’m only lukewarm about the Scandalous Sisterhood. The mystery was okay, and the fact that the book was a standalone did make me wonder whether one of the girls might have been the culprit after all. Unfortunately, that possibility is never really investigated in the book. The discovery of the culprit relies a bit on luck and coincidences, but I didn’t guess it at all and the revelation of howdunnit was quite unexpected.
Overall it’s a quick, easy read. But what I really want is a spinoff in which Smooth Kitty and Disgraceful Mary Jane go off to have lesbian detective adventures after finishing school.