The ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ Series By Robin Stevens Delightfully Subverts Detective Story Rules

These books treat children and their capacity to engage with the complexity of the world around them with respect, and have much to reward the adult reader too.
Set primarily in an English boarding school for girls in the 1930s, Robin Stevens&rsquo; '<i>Murder Most Unladylike'</i> series draws from and pays homage to both the boarding school story and the Golden Age of detective fiction.
Set primarily in an English boarding school for girls in the 1930s, Robin Stevens’ 'Murder Most Unladylike' series draws from and pays homage to both the boarding school story and the Golden Age of detective fiction.

A body is discovered in the gym at Deepdean School for Girls, and Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike opens with Hazel Wong—third former at Deepdean, narrator of the story, and one of the two founding detectives of the Wells and Wong Detective Society—musing that it is funny that she, and not her partner Daisy, was the one to find it. After all, the Honourable Daisy Wells is “a heroine-like person”—a golden English miss who is tall, athletic, titled, keenly intelligent, and convinced she is a heroine to the manner born. Hazel is pretty content to be Watson to Daisy’s Sherlock—because she is too short to be a heroine, and “whoever heard of a Chinese Sherlock?”

By the seventh book, however, Hazel (and Daisy too) has come to realise that “writing something down makes you the most important person in the story”—that who gets to tell the story makes a significant difference to the story that gets told. Set primarily in an English boarding school for girls in the 1930s, Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series (also known as The Wells and Wong Mysteries) draws from and pays homage to both the boarding school story and the Golden Age of detective fiction. However, by making not just two schoolgirls detectives, but a Chinese schoolgirl in England the narrator, Stevens upends much that is taken as a given in both these genres.

One of the many delightful things about this series is its intertextuality and how Hazel and Daisy’s reading habits influence their detecting and the way they see the world around them. Both Hazel and Daisy are avid readers of detective and crime fiction and aware of the tropes and themes of the genre. They start the Detective Society after Daisy spends a summer reading detective novels—all the classic names, from Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham to Dorothy Sayers and Josphine Tey. I came to this series as an adult reader, but much like Daisy and Hazel, I grew up reading both boarding school stories and detective novels. I read my first Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew around the same time as I read my first Malory Towers, and one of the delights of finding this series was being able to sink into the comfort of a familiar form (or two) while delighting in the ways in which Robin Stevens plays around with much that is taken for granted in both genres.

The series isn’t just written in the voice of a young girl writing down her adventures for others like her—it treats children and their capacity to engage with the complexity of the world around them with respect. Much as I loved my Malory Towers and St Clares as a child, I have to admit that the Wells and Wong books never read like an adult ventriloquising moralism through a child; nor do they trivialise or underestimate the detectives’ intelligence as adults around them are frequently wont to. Daisy and Hazel are both intelligent and perceptive as well as well-read, and a key component of their success as detectives is being able to not just observe people, but to look beyond the surface and see flawed, fallible humans. As the series progresses, this capacity to notice, observe and logically deduce also affects how they understand themselves and each other, as well as their awareness of the structures (of race, class, gender, sexuality) that shape the world around them. The fact that these moments of understanding are articulated, rather than impatiently brushed aside, is because it is Hazel who tells the story and not Daisy.

“One of the many delightful things about this series is its intertextuality and how Hazel and Daisy’s reading habits influence their detecting and the way they see the world around them”

Hazel’s expectations of boarding school life are shaped not just by her father’s nostalgic reminiscing of his time at Eton, but also by the boarding school books that she (and later her sister Rose) reads, and she arrives at Deepdean hoping to find a perfect English child for a best friend. Both Deepdean and England are slightly different in reality from what she’s been led to expect, and a chubby, shivering schoolgirl who admits to hating both sports and the valorisation of sporting culture in English boarding schools feels like a long overdue apology to the much-vilified Gwendoline Lacy from the Malory Towers series.

For any postcolonial child who has grown up reading Enid Blyton only to be disappointed by their first encounter with an actual scone, or wondered why food is called spotted dick or toad in the hole, the glossary of English terms that Hazel makes Daisy write at the end of most of the books is one of the ways in which Stevens casually inverts what is seen as normal or perfectly comprehensible to anyone who reads the genre. For example, one of Daisy’s explanations in the glossary to First Class Murder, is “Tongue- I don’t know why Hazel has put this word in! It is exactly what it says. It is a cow’s tongue and it is meant for eating. Honestly, Hazel! Fancy not knowing something like that.” On the other hand, in Murder Most Unladylike, Hazel has an aside about how she hasn’t been able to develop a taste for the way the English eat their meat in dull, sauceless lumps that all taste the same, but she has learnt to gulp things down and say, “Delicious!” at the end of it.

A little into the first book, we learn that Hazel’s ability to survive and make friends at school is based on her seeing through the cliche of the hearty yet ladylike, athletic and sporty but feminine, not overly intelligent but popular English schoolgirl that Daisy seems to embody—and learning to minimise parts of herself in order to fit into the role of a “good egg” or a “sport”, instead of a “swot” , a “sneak” or a “goody goody”, or even “foreign girl”. Like the rest of the school, Hazel too is initially in awe of Daisy’s seemingly perfect, golden English schoolgirl persona. But perceptive, observant Hazel, who is still trying to fit into her new world, catches onto Daisy’s act and recognises the intelligence that she hides behind the perfect schoolgirl act. Their friendship begins when Daisy recognises that Hazel is also clever enough to have understood the unwritten codes of English boarding school girl behaviour and put on a front to fit in. And while this friendship remains at the core of the entire series, Stevens makes it clear right from the first book that it is not without its complicated moments.

The British-American Stevens herself was a boarder at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, one of the oldest and poshest boarding schools for girls in England, and like Hazel, she grew up reading books about boarding schools. The series uses stock tropes like midnight feasts, pranks, dorm rivalries and The Important Sporting Event to further the detective narrative, while stock characters like the stately headmistress and the French teacher who mangles English are included in the series, but given a very different treatment. Death comes to Deepdean not once, not twice, but thrice—in Murder Most Unladylike, in the fourth book, Jolly Foul Play, and the eighth, Top Marks for Murder. In each case the detectives need to observe teachers, students and even parents to solve the mystery, and each time they learn to look at people not for the roles that they are supposed to occupy but for the flawed humans that they are.

Robin Stevens, a British-American, was a boarder at Cheltenham Ladies&rsquo; College, one of the oldest and poshest boarding schools for girls in England, and like Hazel, she grew up reading books about boarding schools.&nbsp;
Robin Stevens, a British-American, was a boarder at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, one of the oldest and poshest boarding schools for girls in England, and like Hazel, she grew up reading books about boarding schools. 

There is power in seeing, in being observant and perceptive; but throughout the series Wells and Wong also learn that being seen has its own advantages and pitfalls. Their friendship begins when both of them are able to see past each other’s attempts to mask their intelligence—Daisy often tells Hazel that she is the only other person at school who is almost as intelligent as her. They also frequently use the adult tendency to underestimate childrens’ intelligence to their advantage while detecting; but Daisy in particular struggles when she realises that as they observe and assess others, they too are being observed and assessed. For instance, she is rather upset to realise that the rest of their dorm mates are aware of the super-secret Detective society even before they are invited to join as junior members; and she’s also distinctly unhappy when their occasional allies/rivals, the Junior Pinkertons, make any deductions before them (or about them).

While our detectives are still schoolgirls and three of the mysteries are set in Deepdean, the series does not just stick to the school’s confines. Over the nine books in the series (and the half-a-dozen mini-mysteries) Hazel and Daisy solve crimes in locales as varied as Daisy’s family home Falingford, Cambridge, a theatre in London, The British Museum in London, a seaside hotel, aboard the Orient Express, a cruise ship in Egypt, and Hong Kong (when they visit Hazel’s family). Much like Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote, death follows our heroines wherever they go; but more importantly, moving outside the world of Deepdean also helps both Daisy and Hazel grow—often in ways that they don’t anticipate.

Both Falingford and Hong Kong force Daisy and Hazel to realise that they/their best friend have been shaped by the worlds that they grew up in; and that families, especially dysfunctional ones, are a formative influence even in resistance or disavowal. Going to Hong Kong is a profoundly unsettling experience for Daisy as for the first time, her status as The Honourable Daisy Wells holds very little weight in a world where she is a complete outsider, and being addressed as Hazel Wong’s sidekick is quite a shock for someone who has always been confident about being the heroine. Over the first four books, Hazel grows to have more faith in her detecting skills and in her own self, but while Daisy always appreciates her Watson, it takes Hong Kong for her to see Hazel as truly coming into her own. It’s a change that Daisy both likes and feels a little unsure of—Hong Kong Hazel is much more difficult to order about. While Hazel is clear that she isn’t changing back into who she used to be, Daisy insists that some things shall never change—like her being the President and Hazel the Vice-President of the Detective Society.

“There are plenty of dysfunctional families in the series for Deepdean to become a found family for many of its characters, but even found families can have their own troubles and the books never hesitate to examine the imbalances (and abuses) of power even in intimate relationships.”

Friendship is at the core of this series, especially female friendship—and while Daisy and Hazel’s relationship is the central, defining one, there are other friendships like Beanie and Kitty’s, or Lavinia’s with the rest of her dormmates, or even the Big Five’s in Jolly Foul Play that look at the different forms of this dynamic. One of the joys of a long-running series is in seeing secondary characters evolve, and the junior members of the Detective Society make their own distinct personalities count as the series progresses. There are plenty of dysfunctional families in the series for Deepdean to become a found family for many of its characters, but even found families can have their own troubles and the books never hesitate to examine the imbalances (and abuses) of power even in intimate relationships. For all of her seeming imperviousness to ordinary human feelings, it is Daisy who has the honesty to point out to Hazel that even the most close relationships can be fraught with resentment as much as contempt; and Daisy again in book seven who reminds Hazel that a facade of performative niceness, especially by a pretty young woman, can cloak manipulative malice quite well.

Their adventure on board the Orient Express makes them aware of the existence of other young detectives their age, but if Daisy is unconcerned about their status as the best detective society, she isn’t unaffected by the prospect of losing her status as the person closest to Hazel. Their time at Cambridge introduces them to institutionalised sexism, but both Daisy and Hazel have always been aware of the many ways, big and small, in which gender roles shape their lives—especially the limitations and privileges of performing femininity. In the seventh book, there is a close call with violence from a man they suspect is capable of hurting women. When they return to Deepdean after two terms away from school, Daisy must also confront the terrifying possibility of losing everything that is familiar about the place that she considers her own. From being upstaged as the most charismatic student by the arrival of Amina al Maghrabi, to seeing her dorm mates grow up and change in the time they’ve been away, to the prospect of losing Deepdean itself as a third murder mystery unfolds, Daisy’s nearly unshakeable confidence in herself and in her place in the world gets a few solid rattles along the way.

In a letter to fans on the Dubray Books blog, Stevens writes, “ I first wrote Murder Most Unladylike during a difficult time in my life. I needed to imagine a place where all problems were human-sized and ultimately solvable, where anyone could be a hero no matter how small or unworthy they felt, where badness had an expiration date, and where wicked people were never out of the reach of justice. That’s the power of a murder mystery plot, after all—not only are they fascinating puzzles, but we know while reading them that everything will be all right in the morning, no matter how dark the night seems.” In one of the sections of Cream Buns and Crime, she makes a similar point about how cosy crime is very much a product of its time—written after one great war while another was simmering on the horizon, and people wanted the comfort and certainty of this genre as escape. There is comfort in reading genre fiction that acknowledges violence and darker human impulses without fixating on them, narratives in which the emotional interplay between characters takes precedence over gore, especially when most crime/detective narratives and even reimaginings of popular comics have gotten darker and more lurid.

In other interviews, Stevens has often spoken about how her years at boarding school and her childhood reading were both formative for her, and how writing for a middle-grade audience does not mean dumbing down the issues that her characters or her audience are engaging with. The strongest selling point of these books is how they treat children with complexity and respect; acknowledging their ability to observe things, to interpret them, to deduce and make sense of the world around them, and to use its rules and its blind spots to their own advantage. Many years ago, in a literature classroom, my professor paraphrased Adriana Cavarero to the effect of how stories are a way of making sense of the world, of trying to map patterns onto a world that is fundamentally illogical and resistant to the idea of being mappable. What else are detective stories but that impulse concentrated in its most essential form? And perhaps this is where the boarding school genre and the detective story overlap, in that both are about learning to look at the world to make sense of it, to learn to attribute intent and establish a coherent, logical narrative around a sequence of events, and to bring motive and actions together in a way that is comprehensible. While the specific mysteries and the techniques involved in detection are important, what these books also draw our attention to are some of the things that we take for granted when creating these models for the world around us—what gets left out and unsaid, and who goes unseen.

“The strongest selling point of these books is how they treat children with complexity and respect; acknowledging their ability to observe things, to interpret them, to deduce and make sense of the world around them, and to use its rules and its blind spots to their own advantage.”

In 1929, Ronald Knox codified ten rules for detective fiction—Rule 5 says “No Chinaman must figure in the story”, apparently introduced to criticise racial cliches prevalent in 1920s English writing like “the narrow slit eyes of Chin Loo”. Robin Stevens deliberately breaks rule 5—because not only is Hazel a Chinese schoolgirl from Hongkong, there are several other non-white characters throughout the series, including Hazel’s family; Alfred Cheng, another Chinese student from Hongkong at Cambridge in Mistletoe and Murder; their friend and fellow detective/ally/rival George Mukherjee and his brother Harold who are first mentioned in First Class Murder and whom we meet at Cambridge; the actors Simon Carver, Inigo Leontes and Martita Torrera whom they meet at the Rue Theatre in Death Under The Spotlight; and Amina al Maghrabi, their new Egyptian classmate in Top Marks for Murder. England’s imperial past is not white-washed to a lily white Englishness, and having plenty of non-white characters in addition to Hazel as the narrator lets Hazel see that hers is not an isolated experience, as different characters experience and respond to their specific experiences of racism in different ways. Turning Knox’s rule 5 on its head helps to name and comment on racial cliches and racist behaviours—big and small—which would otherwise have been normalised in most genre fiction written around that time.

Another one of Knox’s rules that Stevens deliberately flouts is rule 9: “The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader”. Hazel is highly intelligent, methodical, perceptive and empathetic—qualities that make her style of detection complement Daisy’s more brash, self-confident brilliance. If there is a fictional parallel to Hazel’s Watson, it is not the bumbling Watson made popular by Nigel Bruce’s performance in the 1939-1946 Sherlock Holmes films, but a much more contemporary Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson in Elementary—an equal partner in detection who isn’t intimidated by their Sherlock’s brilliance and frequently cuts them down to size, and whose presence brings empathy and steadiness to their detecting methods. Inasmuch as Daisy’s detection skills and ability to gauge people and even manipulate them comes in handy, it is often Hazel’s patience and quiet, empathetic observation that help them arrive at the right solution.

Both Hazel and Daisy come from privileged families, and the particular circumstances of their respective families also entails a close relationship with members of their household who have acted as quasi parents, particularly maternal figures. Daisy is fiercely protective of everyone she considers her own, including the staff at Deepdean. Both of them note that it is the staff—be it old Joe, the groundsman, or Nancy and Beth, the maids at the School Dinner— who get blamed for murders that adults cannot solve (or won’t acknowledge as murders). But it’s also Hazel who notices the peculiar reverse snobbery of rich English people—the way rich people act like they are poor; how it is bad form to talk about how much you have or to show off what you own; and yet how close-knit and incestuous those circles of privilege can be; and how everyone—including schoolgirls- are aware of how rich (or poor) someone else’s people are. In the seventh book, Daisy is stung when another character comments on the nepotism of the narrow circles of English nobility, but it is Hazel who sees through the character’s tendency to hold forth on the virtues of socialism while not just hiding his own privileged background but also refusing to put any of his purported ideals into actual practice.

“It feels strange to say goodbye to Wells and Wong at a time when a global pandemic has changed everything about the world as we used to know it, but I also envy anyone—young or old—who picks up these books for the first time.”

The other major break with genre tradition is in how the love that dare not speak its name pipes out loud and clear throughout the series. The queerness that lurks in the subtext of all girls’ (or all boys’) boarding school stories and golden age detective fiction pops up right from the first novel—from the socially sanctioned “pash” that schoolgirls are allowed to have on other schoolgirls or teachers, to the canoodling between schoolgirls that is more likely to be the subject of furtive gossip. There is a bisexual character in the very first book, and everyone seems to accept that she was first in a relationship with a woman and then a man. If in the first book Hazel needs Daisy to explain the reason why the spare bedroom in a two bedroom flat is the secret to the relationship between two women, by book 7 this is the sort of thing that is met with quick understanding and a tacit agreement to look away and say nothing. As Daisy and Hazel mature, so does their ability to understand the many complexities of sexuality and feelings around the same—from idle gossip to understanding how fear of discovery can be a powerful motivator, to understanding how fear of loss can also force people into hiding parts of themselves.

The ninth book, Death Sets Sail, is the last in the series. Apart from a twisty, complicated mystery that needs the combined wit of several detectives, one small pirate and a little bit of serendipity along with voracious true crime reading to be solved, it also has Egyptian history, magic and Europeans being entitled cultural appropriators. More importantly, it announces the death of a major character right at the beginning, and so an elegiac note runs through the entire book as we prepare to say goodbye to this series.

I started reading Wells and Wong in my late 20s, and while I was very far from Robin Stevens’s intended age group of readers, I was going through a turbulent personal period of change that made my emotional state somewhat similar to how Stevens describes hers when she was writing her first book. I might have read my first Wells and Wong mystery because it was a hat tip to Murder On The Orient Express, but it was the unusual heroines and the novelty they brought to a familiar form that kept me returning to these books time and again.

It feels strange to say goodbye to Wells and Wong at a time when a global pandemic has changed everything about the world as we used to know it, but I also envy anyone—young or old—who picks up these books for the first time. The seething turmoil of the period and the early sounds of war drums find their way into the books at different points—from Jews smuggled out of Europe in one of the early books to Inspector Priestley’s debating a Hitler-supporting old man in the eighth, and the books end at a point when the world can no longer pretend that things aren’t changing irrevocably. I will look forward to a new generation of detectives including Hazel’s youngest sister, May, in The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, but perhaps this moment—when things are falling apart once again even as everyone is trying to hold onto what is familiar—is fitting for more people to discover Wells and Wong.