Sunday, 16 August 2015

Review: First Class Murder (A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery) by Robin Stevens

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday on the world-famous Orient Express - and it's clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: there is rumour of a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer has vanished - as if into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery - and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case.

Historical mystery stories suddenly seem to be in vogue as far as middle grade children's books are concerned. In the past twelve months we have seen the publication of, amongst others, Jordan Stratford's The Case of the Missing Moonstone, Katherine Woodfine's The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Kevin Sands' The Blackthorn Key, and English translations of Irene Adler's Sherlock, Lupin and Me books. However, in my opinion, there is one person who is well ahead of the pack in the race to be crowned queen/king of kidlit mystery writing, and that is Robin Stevens.

Robin's Murder Most Unladylike, the first book in her Wells & Wong Mystery series, was one of my favourite books of 2014. The second book, Arsenic For Tea, made a very early bid for a 2015 top spot, and that has now been usurped by the third, and best in the series so far, First Class Murder. Robin Stevens doesn't just write outstanding mystery stories, her writing is among the very best for middle grade readers in the UK this year.

For this third book, Stevens has taken on her greatest challenge to date by setting her mystery on the Orient Express in 1935, only a year after the original release date of the great Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. However, the author has met this challenge with seemingly consummate ease, and has produced a mystery story that will keep young readers guessing until the dramatic denouement.

For many years, young fans of mystery stories had to make do with reading and re-reading the various mystery stories of Enid Blyton. However, the 'politically correct' brigade's claims of racism and sexism in Blyton's writing have sadly made these less appealing for parents to give to their children these days. Such claims can certainly not be levelled at the writing of Robin Stevens, who deals with the accepted, casual racism of that time with sensitivity, and whose female characters are intelligent, resilient and will never play second fiddle to any boy or man. In this third outing for the mystery solving pair, Stevens again does not shy away from touching on sensitive issues - in this case, the evil that was rising in Germany, and the plight of Jewish people in pre-WWII Europe with Hitler in power.

In Arsenic For Tea, we had the pleasure of meeting Daisy's family of eccentrics, and now the spotlight is on Hazel and her family, and more specifically her father. Vincent Wong, Director of Wong Banking, is a successful and driven man, yet this is 1930s Europe, and as such there are individuals who will look at him and assume he is a servant. However, whenever such incorrect assumptions are made he faces them with dignity and poise; it is easy to see where Hazel gets her inner strength from. He is also a man who wants the very best for his daughter, and in his mind the solving of mysteries is not a suitable pastime or occupation for any young lady, least alone his daughter. Thus Daisy's and Hazel's efforts to find the murderer are hampered even greater that usual by his vigilance and occasional interference. His presence leads to all kinds of subterfuge on the part of the girls, which in lesser hands could quite easily have descended into the world of slapstick. But hey, this is Robin Stevens we are talking about, so instead it not only adds humour to the story, but also adds to the tension we feel as readers.  

I desperately hope that Robin Stevens and her publisher have many more mysteries planned for Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong. If they do, then I predict that there will come a time when people no longer first think of Blyton when asked to name a children's mystery writer, instead it will be the name of Robin Stevens that is first on their lips. Move over Blyton, your long reign is over and there is a new queen of children's mystery stories!

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