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Arsenic for Tea: Robin Stevens, Corgi, 2015

The second Wells and Wong mystery and sequel to Murder Most Unladylike is set at Fallingford, Daisy’s home – I suppose another murder at Deepdean school really would have led to its closure – where Hazel is holidaying and observing upper-class English life at close quarters. For Daisy’s fourteenth birthday, there is going to be a party, but, as we know from the outset of the book, it is going to be marred by murder.

Stevens is therefore tackling the country house murder mystery through the eyes of clever 1930s schoolgirls, with references to Daisy’s beloved detective stories.

”I,” said Daisy, ‘can do anything. And even though she doesn’t like to mention it, so can Hazel.”’ (p 324).

The victim is universally unpopular: the one exception being Lady Hastings, Daisy’s mother, who was rather fond of Denis Curtis. Everyone else thought him a scoundrel for carrying on with the married lady of the house and nosing around the valuable antiques at Fallingford while pretending they weren’t worth much. Everyone knew where the arsenic that was used as rat poison was kept. Nearly anyone could have served Mr Curtis arsenic in his tea – the title is rather literal. Of course, more scrutiny of motive and opportunity is needed to hone in on the killer.

Therefore, Daisy and Hazel must reconstitute the Detective Society and grudgingly include Daisy’s guests, timid Beanie and curious Kitty, to solve the mystery. Bad weather means they have a head start on the police, but they have to dodge grown-up tendencies to patronise them, keep them out of interesting conversations and fill their time. The tension rises with Daisy’s unwillingness to face the ramifications of the fact that Mr Curtis must have been killed by one of her family, their hirelings or guests. Worse, as Hazel can’t avoid, the prime suspect must be Lord Hastings, Daisy’s beloved father. As a cuckolded husband and someone who had a clear opportunity, he could have done it. Daisy the daughter needs to find evidence to satisfy Daisy the detective that he didn’t.

It’s a nice study of girls’ friendship. Hazel, who can see Daisy’s family up close, can sympathise with and support Daisy and, occasionally, has to stand up to her. From Hong Kong and clearly not English, Hazel has an outsider’s point of view of some of the quirks of the Wells clan.

I have to admit I’d forgotten about Beanie and Kitty’s existences, but it was nice to meet Daisy’s dashing uncle Felix, her mother’s brother, who has a monocle, and by the end, reminded me of another literary character. Daisy finds him unsatisfactory in these circumstances as he treats her like a child. But it is as one that she’s viewed her parents’ marriage up until now whereas older brother Bertie has been more aware of their flighty mother’s indiscretions.

There’s an elderly butler and a cook and a maid who seem willing to provide the girls’ bunbreaks, which fuel their detecting; a mysterious governess; and a hint of—well, a boy-girl friendship between Hazel and Stephen, Bertie’s friend and guest.

The mystery is well done. I didn’t suspect the right character until just before our detectives did. Hazel’s distaste for murder and the danger they’re in, but inward drive to work out who did it – for it is there, without the need for Daisy to push her all the time – and her cleverness in making the most of her observations, and, indeed, Daisy’s, are compelling. Perhaps it doesn’t have quite the irony of a story about schoolgirl detectives at school of the first book, but, again, the author knows her genres and the world where people ‘like us’ follow certain rules. By developing the emotional heft of Hazel and Daisy’s friendship and having them grow up a little, I think she did the right thing. I look forward to reading First Class Murder, the next mystery, especially if it features the clash that was hinted at between Hazel’s father and Daisy, when it arrives.

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