I grew up on a diet of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Famous Five and the Secret Seven, moving then to the Alex Rider series, where a love for books about children who solve mysteries and crimes and kick ass fizzled out temporarily around the age I got to James Patterson and Robert Muchamore, moving on to Grisham and Patterson’s adult books about adults who solve mysteries and crimes and kick ass – more stories I’d devour day after day on holiday or curled up in bed after school. I don’t think there will ever come a time where I’m not utterly enchanted by mysteries, which is why I am very glad I began Robin Stevens’s A Murder Most Unladylike mysteries at the start of this year.
I’d read A Murder Most Unladylike for book club early this year, and it being my very first meeting I had sticky notes all over the book with excited exclamations of things I adored within it
such as ‘yay, canoodling lesbians!’ and ‘Normalisation of idolisation in the form of pash!’, and it became the start of me being glad I’d picked up the books. For anyone unfamiliar with the series, it is about Hazel Wong, a young Chinese student living in an English boarding school in the 1930s, and the secret detective society she and her friend Daisy Wells have at Deepdean, where they investigate crimes and solve murders better than any adult ever could. There are also lots of bun breaks, which are a vital element to any detective’s day. Or any detective-book-reading person’s day.
Mistletoe and Murder follows Hazel and Daisy to Cambridge where they spend Christmas holidays with Daisy’s brother Bertie, only to find that there is yet another mystery to be solved in a race against the clock.
Himself bought me a copy of Mistletoe and Murder as a surprise which I kept up for Christmas Eve
because Christmas needs to be injected with a little bit of murder, just to keep the balance. Reading it, I realised a number of things – these books are so brilliant because they treat the children reading them as people. At no point does Hazel, our protagonist, preach or shove ideas down throats – she comments on racism she experiences and notes how she feels, rather than saying what should happen, allowing the age group this book is aimed at – MG, mostly, though there are definitely older readers of the series – to deduce for themselves what the morally correct thing to do is. Hazel comments on feelings of jealousy when it comes to almost-perfect Daisy, but demonstrates clearly that it is okay to love someone and to envy them, so long as that person isn’t made to feel bad for it. It’s an important lesson that I wish I’d seen in more books when I was younger. I think we were all at some point or other taught that being treated badly meant that people were jealous, when it’s far more nuanced than that, and there are other ways to go about it. Hazel owns her feelings of jealousy and is able to relate them back to her desire to ‘be more English’ in order to fit in, but never lets Daisy see how she feels about her at times, knowing it is not her fault. It resulted in a really delicate exploration of emotional maturity that doesn’t necessarily feature prominently in the story, but is there and is incredibly important.
Within Mistletoe and Murder, the characters explore crushes and first loves with all the wonder and gentleness of being 14 and in love for the first time, and the insecurity and fears that everyone had at one point or other. Friendships were challenged and the answer to the mystery was super-smart – it outsmarted me, anyway, and I do hate to not figure out what’s going on.
Seriously. I didn’t figure out the major ending of Now You See Me and sulked for an hour… Robin Stevens has crafted a genuinely brilliant series that resonates so clearly and cleverly in today’s world despite being set almost 100 years ago. I’d recommend this book to anyone who loved mysteries as a child, and any child who loves mysteries now. Clever stories were the making of me growing up – Mistletoe and Murder, and the rest of the series, will be the making of many.