MMU Marathon 3: First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

At the beginning of September I set myself the challenge to read the MMU series by Robin Stevens from start to latest book as I had only to that point read the first.

Throughout I am keeping a casebook of my own taking notes to compile my reflections.

I thoroughly enjoyed this excursion with the Wells and Wong Detective society and I was really pleased to be so baffled!! I didn’t start to become suspicious of certain behaviours until just before the murder and during the discovery of the body & later confirmed somethings.

I hasten to add this wasn’t due to any weaknesses in the design of plot, it was completely based on a few things jarring with my historical understanding of social conventions of the time. You know the whole spot the ‘odd thing out’ approach.

Book cover for First Class Murder
Cover design by Nina Tara

It’s the Summer Break and Mr Wong has arrived to take Hazel and Daisy on a trip of a lifetime First Class on the Orient Express to Istanbul.

But this wouldn’t be a Wells and Wong Detective Society story if something more sinister wasn’t going on.

First of all there is a SPY on board, well two to be truthful and secondly there is a perplexing murder on the borders of Jugoslavia that draws Daisy and Hazel into a very tangled web, against her father’s wishes, and into the path of one Alexander Arcady.

Extract from Casebook

This book was exceptionally enjoyable to me for especially for three core reasons

1. Homage to a Classic .

It takes inspiration both as a homage in setting and context and in some plot points to the legendary Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie. This Poirot novel is universally acclaimed as one of the best of her mysteries, and certainly enduringly one of the most famous of all time for its shocking twist.

There is also a dash of Death on the Nile in there too without giving too much away, although that isn’t because I had read Christie novel, that comes from watching the Peter Ustinov version on holiday and cracking it within minutes thanks to reading First Class Murder and feeling incredibly proud!!

2. Locked Room!

Gosh I love a Locked Room mystery and this is a cracker. Locked Room mysteries have always fascinated me because of the creativity it takes to write a solution that isn’t so blinking obvious but doesn’t seem far-fetched at the denouement.

Robin Stevens takes up the challenge with aplomb!!

3. Infused with History

The contextual History is really beginning to be deployed now especially in a European setting and it makes my History loving (former teacher) heart glow seeing such thoughtful research and hints from the fact it’s occurring during the Abyssinian Crisis (not referred to directly but hangs over the visit in Italy) and the Consolidation of Fascism across Europe impacting upon the political, social, economic, cultural and transport experiences of Jewish people which were already strangled by racism such as the Countess gives voice to. This book gives a voice to the rumblings of war a few years before it begins and challenges the narrative that key players were unaware of the challenges in fascist controlled states.

And without spoilers, one of the subplots within this book made me cry for the historical context.

He was still kinder, and clever than all the other grown up passengers on this Orient Express put together. But all the same, I wished that I were not the only one who knew it.

Mr Wong despite his attitude of Hazel to be a good obedient & intelligent girl is actually pretty cool in that he doesn’t demand the girls do lessons whilst on holidays which would have happened in an English household, instead the trip itself is an educational experience.

He is also remarkably stoic in the face of racism especially from Mr Daunt.

Mini Spoiler- it was also lovely to see the return of Lucy Livedon but the stakes are even higher than at Fallingford and sends us down a labyrinth of double red herrings- which are clues for a spy and which are those of murder?

Extract from the casebook

Indeed this is the fishiest of cases with LOTS of red herrings, indeed in true Murder on the Orient Express style of considering what does the murderer want us to see and think alongside the problem of the spy to boot.

Another interesting introduction is that of Alexander Arcady who is made clearly to be either friend or foe from the offset- though it is clear that Daisy is having none of that whilst Hazel warms to him.

I love the developing intimacy of Hazel and Daisy in this novel, their ability to communicate non-verbally and Hazel’s increased courage to challenge Daisy, is wonderful to see.

I always know it’s you. I would know you out of every person in the universe.

Daisy struggles at times in this book with the scandal of the Fallingford Murder and it seems only Hazel can see this as Daisy puts on a harder ‘Jolly Good Sport’ face whilst burning with rage at all the gossip. This trip is good for them in that regard.

Daisy is far less ‘using’ of Hazel as Lavinia accused in Murder Most Unladylike. Now there is a mutual affection and respect for each other ‘no better, no worse’ as Hazel puts it. I could also cuddle Daisy for observing and respecting Hazel’s Father’s desire for Hazel more accomplished than Daisy and that she engineers the opportunity for her friend to shine. This is HUGE development for Miss Daisy.

‘People do not like difference,’ Mrs Vitellius went on. ‘You ought to know that Daisy.’

But Daisy still is incredibly naive in her privilege, and her own framing as Hazel KNOWS Daisy was shocked at how Mr Wong was the perfect English gentleman with language & intonation to match.

Equally with her inability to understand why Jewish people were treated any differently, her privilege has tainted her ability to empathise until she sees injustice firsthand. For an exceptionally intelligent girl she is remarkably stupid in other ways.

Terrible things happen whether or not you want them to. You must make a choice: to turn and look them in the eye and see the terrible things for what they are, or to hide away and pretend to yourself… Last term I decided that I was not going to be the kind of person who pretended.

Hazel has a massive growth in this book too. Her closeness with Daisy bolsters her confidence and self worth that they are working in synchronicity and able to depend on the other to act if needed, it’s becoming a partnership now.

This lifts her self belief to enable her to speak out to her father, and show her thoughts and intelligence in a weighted and thoughtful manner is something incredible and impossible to the Hazel before Daisy.

Crossness and shame and fear were all tangled up inside me… but I did know, suddenly, that for once my father was not right…The thought made me feel very odd.

Much as Daisy has broken through that adolescent phase of seeing parental flaws so Hazel is becoming aware of her parents being flawed and fallible too.

It’s also interesting to see some of the snobbery that we saw emerging in Arsenic for Tea comes screeching in her face and she realises how judgemental she has been of others (in particular one passenger) when she dislikes the same judgements being made of her.

Extracts from the Casebook

The growth of the girls and the resulting pride from Mr Wong is such a beautiful outcome from this tangled web which really cleverly communicates to young readers that often things are not as clear cut as we would like, but in essence (as in motivations and methodology) can be very simple within this mess.

This was such an enjoyable adventure to see real and dangerous history being interwoven into the story and the girls not just proud of their own prior accomplishments but eager to do better and to adapt under pressure.

I would hope to see more of Alexander, as he seems an interesting character, if a bit ‘peachy keen’ for the girls!

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens is published by Puffin

4 thoughts on “MMU Marathon 3: First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

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