Book of the Week, Children's books, new releases

Book of the Week: Top Marks for Murder

Another old friend for this week’s BotW: the eighth in Robin Stevens’s middle grade Murder Most Unladylike series. It was between this and the new Tessa Dare for this week’s pick and although the Dare is a lot of fun, I have a lot of thoughts about this book, this series and the importance of Hazel and Daisy.

Cover of Top Marks for Murder

We rejoin the detective society as they return to Deepdean after their extended break visiting Hazel’s family in Hong Kong and then their appearance in a play in London. And they’re back at school just in time for the anniversary weekend, which proves to be a rather more dangerous time for the girls than you would hope, after one of the gang sees what she thinks is a murder from their dormitory window.

The girls are back on the trail and are happy to be distracted from the things that have changed at school while they’ve been away. But this isn’t the first time that there’s been a murder at Deepdean, and Daisy and Hazel are older now and are seeing more of the consequences of what’s going on as well. After all how many parents want to leave their children at a school where murders happen. So the girls may not need to just solve the case, they might need to save the school as well.

What I’ve always loved about this series is the way that it takes familiar tropes from the school stories that I loved when I was little and update them so that they will work for kids today. I’ve spoken before about revisiting old favourites and realising they’re now problematic (to say the least in some cases). I’m lucky with the Chalet School – LH Johnson recently wrote a lovely piece about the Chalet School Peace League and Elinor M Brent Dyer quietly advocating peace and cooperation – but I’ve bought and read a couple of Shirley Flight books over the last few weeks and although they’re mostly fun adventures, there are some horrible attitudes towards non-Brits and especially non-Westerners. One of them is downright racist to a point where I now wouldn’t want to lend any of them out to a modern child of the age I was when I read the first book in the series. But if you want to give the next generation the sort of warm feels you had from Girls Own books but without the nasty undercurrents, this series will do that for you.

And that’s not to say that these are populated by perfect exemplars of modern day life sticking out like sore thumbs in the olden days. They’re not like that. You see the nastier side of 1930s boarding school life because because you’re looking at it from Hazel’s point of view and nothing she can do will change the way some people look at her just because she’s Chinese. Daisy definitely isn’t perfect – she doesn’t handle the fact that while she’s been gone a fascinating new girl has taken her place very well at all. And she’s still dealing with the fallout for her family after the events at her house in book 2. This is full of realistic characters learning real life lessons as well as solving a tricky mystery. As a grown up, I really appreciate and enjoy what Robin Stevens is doing – but it does works for its actual target market too, as my niece as well as several of the ten year olds my sister taught last year (who lent her copies of books in the series) prove. And when my niece is a bit older, I’ll lend her the Golden Age mystery stories these are influenced by and she can read the grown up versions of some of these plots (this one is very Sayers inspired). But with a few caveats about old fashioned attitudes.

Now, I’m going to be very careful how I phrase this section because: spoilers, but in the last book we learned an important piece of information about one of the main characters. A piece of information that both is and isn’t a big deal. Inside the last book it was treated exactly right by the character who learned it and in this book nothing has changed about that piece of information but it is absolutely not an issue or a Big Deal. And that is exactly as it should be. If you’ve read Death in the Spotlight you’ll know exactly what I’m talking abut and if you haven’t, then I’m sorry for that impenetrable paragraph, but go and read it and you’ll understand.

I had First Class Murder pre-ordered (and had to remember to change the delivery address to the new house!) but you should be able to get hold of it easily from any shop with a children’s section. It’s also available online – from places like Book Depository – as well as on Kindle and Kobo.  And you can read some of my previous posts about the series here and here.

Happy Reading!