Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Arsenic for Tea, by Robin Stevens

Welcome to the Wells & Wong Detective Society. If you haven’t met them before, don’t worry, we can introduce you. Miss Daisy Wells, aged thirteen (very nearly fourteen), daughter of Lord and Lady Hastings of Fallingford House, and Miss Hazel Wong, also aged thirteen, daughter of rich Hong Kong businessman (but with a thing for all things English). Daisy is a very determined young lady who is used to things going her way, but who recently learnt it isn’t always a bad thing to listen to the advice of a friend like Hazel.

The Detective Society was born in Murder Most Unladylike after one of their mistresses at Deepdean School went missing – well, ok, after one of their mistresses was murdered. Daisy is President and Hazel is Vice President and Secretary. This basically means Hazel has to write down everything that happens, which, if I do say so myself, she does extremely well. So far they have a 100% success rate, but things have been quiet as far as cases are concerned recently. Until now, that is.

Now is 1935, the Easter holidays, and Daisy and Hazel have decamped from school to Daisy’s home – a traditional English mansion that is getting a little rough around the edges – for the holiday break and to celebrate Daisy’s birthday. There are lots of other members of Daisy’s family there along some other friends from school, Kitty and Beanie, their holiday governess, and a friend of Daisy’s mother, one Mr. Curtis. Except that now Mr. Curtis appears to have been poisoned. It wouldn’t have been a terribly bad thing – he really wasn’t very nice – except that now the village is flooded out so no-one can leave, and someone in the house is Responsible. Yes, with a capital R. Someone in the house is a murderer and Daisy has decided this is a perfect new case for the Detective Society. Can they solve it before the police arrive?

Robins Stevens tells a rip-roaring story. Arsenic for Tea is an adventure and a mystery, but is also about friendship and family, trust and betrayal. The world she has created is very jolly hockey sticks and terribly spiffing, yet she draws the balance between this and contemporary story-telling absolutely perfectly - it never becomes too stuffy or OTT, yet always maintains it thirties overtone. In addition to which there is an awful lot of very neat plotting – to start with, it seems as if almost every member of the household could be the culprit, but the girls gradually rule out suspects as they eavesdrop behind cabinets, go hunting for evidence, and gradually pull together all the little pieces of the puzzle.

Hazel’s voice is wonderful as she recounts everybody’s actions blow by blow, all interspersed with her own thoughts and feelings. It’s a particularly tricky case for Daisy because it seems inevitable that the murderer must be one of Daisy’s family. She really doesn’t want to have to suspect any of them, and who can blame her, but if she’s to be a proper detective she simply has to, while Hazel is reminded of the fear she felt from their previous murder case and the worries around what might become of them should the culprit discover their investigation.

All in all, Arsenic for Tea is an absolute joy. Not only such fun to read, but Stevens keeps us guessing all the way through – I only put two and two together two paragraphs before Hazel does in a classic ‘oh my god!’ moment. Amidst red herrings, multiple motives, a sagging family legacy and – fortunately – plenty of cake, there is one thing of which I can be sure: Wells & Wong are here to stay. Brilliant.

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