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Jolly Foul Play!: Robin Stevens, Puffin, 2016

The fourth ‘A Most Unladylike Mystery’ or ‘Wells and Wong’ mystery follows our heroines, schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells, back to Deepdean School. I was glad about this, partly because I always preferred the mix of a boarding school setting with a murder mystery to the other variants of murder mystery offered in the series, although all the books have made great use of the difference between the girls’ point of view and that of adults and how what they observe can helps them solve the mystery. An additional point in favour of returning to the school is that this a series that deals with the consequences of the past, and in this school, murder was done.

One of the big changes since ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ has been in the staff, and with a new headmistress feeling that she didn’t know the girls well enough to select the head girl, she left it to a vote. This was won by Elizabeth Hurst, a girl who collected secrets as assiduously as Daisy, but used them against others. With ‘the Five’, her acolytes, made prefects, it has been a miserable term so far, until Fireworks Night celebrations are ruined by a death. The grown-ups say it was an accident, but the rumour flying around the school is that it was murder and our detectives are convinced that that is so.

So, Daisy and Hazel’s Detective Society has a new case, but things are different between the girls. For all that Daisy calls Hazel ‘Watson’, Hazel is a bit more assertive and insists on the whole dorm being brought in, whereas Daisy would rather keep it to just then. But Beanie and Kitty helped before in ‘Arsenic for Tea’, and they and Lavinia turn out to have something to offer. The dorm’s unity, give or take some spats, is in contrast to the divisions and splits that emerge in the school after Elizabeth’s death, with the Five losing their power and the shrimps (the littlest girls) becoming galvanised as some of the secrets that Elizabeth knew about Deepdean girls come out, adding more impetus to solve the case. And even Hazel may have her own secrets, something Daisy can’t abide.

The book starts slowly, with a bit of telling about the first few weeks of term, which is a shame, because when Stevens allows Hazel to narrate the aftermath of the head girl’s death, she has an excellent knack of honing in on evocative details. Deepdean is stained by past events, and most of the girls know it. One of the themes is how rosy the adult perspective is of childhood, while the girls are aware of the darker truth, such as that one of them is a murderer, not a grieving friend.

Secrets are another theme, with one German girl having a timely secret (the series is set in the 1930s), and indeed, as the girls come to realise, everyone has a secret they don’t want the whole school to know, whether it is about family or their conduct. Indeed, they’d like to keep it from their best friend. Yes, even Hazel.

As Hazel grows up and her sense of identity becomes stronger, she realises more and more the differences between her and the previously more dominant Daisy. She can’t help but note the similarities between Daisy, who has a sense of justice to balance her curiosity and arrogance, and Elizabeth. There are other tensions between the two best friends – Hazel doesn’t quite make the connection that all the things that have happened to Daisy, at her school and her home, have made her even more resistant to change, which is a fight even Daisy Wells will never win.

Despite the ‘jolly’ in the title, it's less funny than previous books, although some bits about Daisy’s brazen confidence and the schoolgirl view of life are funny. The reader doesn’t have to have read all or any of the previous books to follow it, Stevens refers to the outlines of past mysteries alone, although I think you’ll get more from having read about the girls’ previous cases. There are moments where the detectives are weak – detecting more or less has to happen out of class – and for all that Daisy claims that they solve the case, it solves itself for them, but at least they were aware there was a case to investigate! Mistress didn’t get that!

Hockey eventually appears in the story, as per the title. Hazel is still not a fan of physical activity and very much a fan of food, which makes her relatable. Perhaps more could have been made of her Hong Kong upbringing and its effect on her perspective, she’s very much a Deepdean girl, though, who, like German Una has acquired fluent schoolgirl English. Some things are explicit that wouldn’t be in a story written during that time – lesbianism and broken homes, and power is examined from a distinctly modern perspective, how it shifts, how it can be aboused. But it’s the same schoolgirl codes as you’d find in girls own, interrupted by murder, but resilient.
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