Monday, July 27, 2015

Murder is Bad Manners

Ahh, a boarding school book.  I love books set at boarding schools--especially British ones!  I love the whole mini-cosmos created by some crenellated walls and a sensibly-shod headmistress.  Also, this whole field hockey thing, which seems like rugby with sticks for Proper Young Ladies of Quality.


So, I was delighted to finally get a copy of Robin Stevens' Murder Is Bad Manners, originally published in the UK as Murder Most Unladylike (which I personally prefer, but more on that later).  It's first in a series of mysteries featuring an unlikely duo: the picture-perfect British miss, Daisy Wells (who's really all rosy and bluebell-y) and Hong Kong heiress Hazel Wong, who's been sent back to Britain by her father for a "proper" education.  This is a completely brilliant move on the part of Stevens, who can explore British Imperialism, racism, and microaggressions at a level that kids understand: The Different Person, i.e. Bully Target.

Although Hazel keeps dropping hints that she knows of Daisy's true nature (i.e., that she isn't picture perfect, nor is she as brainless as she makes herself out to be), Hazel never pushes her friend to see her as anything less than a second-class sidekick.  And Hazel is strangely contented with being the Watson to Daisy's Holmes.  Hopefully, in future volumes, we'll see Hazel assert herself.

The thing that is so strangely captivating about this book is how it lulls you into thinking that you're following the shenanigans of two overly-imaginiative schoolgirls, and then the bodies start piling up. Daisy's lies to get their little Detective Agency out of lots of sticky situations are marvels to behold.

I was a bit unsure how to feel about the book's approach to gay/lesbian situations: it's clear that one of the teachers is bisexual, another is lesbian, and that the girls dabble in g/g situations at school.  And yet, it's not discussed frankly.  Hazel says something like, "Well, we all know what that is," but a lot of kids might not.

This leads me to the greatest difficulty I had with the book, and that's that it was altered for a US audience.  While most of the British schoolgirl slang is left intact, some pretty common substitutions are swapped back to American English.  For example, Hazel and Daisy eat "cookies," not "biscuits," and they wear "sweaters," not "jumpers."  I asked around on Twitter, and evidently this sort of editorial finagling isn't uncommon.  Evidently American students are assumed to be so dull-witted that they cannot use a dictionary.  Tinkering with the vocabulary led me to wonder if more over references to LGBTQ characters or behaviors were also subdued.  I'd love to get a UK copy of the book and read that one too.  Uh, yes, booking a flight to Heathrow for ... literary research.

Overall, this is a perfectly charming, just-gory-enough murder mystery, wrapped up in a boarding school bow.






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